Critical Role and the Rise of D&D

A few days ago, our own Jeff Slater (game collector and enthusiast extraordinaire) pointed me towards the Critical Role YouTube D&D campaign.

Watching it, and seeing that it has almost 6 million views, has brought me to realize that something is happening in the gaming world. There are entire campaigns online, hundreds of hours that people are watching religiously, tuning in live every week. D&D is in the spotlight in so many ways - we have celebrities endorsing it, it appears on popular TV shows like Stranger Things, and there's even something on YouTube called "CelebriD&D", where famous actors play D&D in short segments.

It seems this is really something huge. There are second-party videos reviewing moments in the game which are 30 minutes long and have been watched close to a million times. Commenters say they cried when something sad happened in the game, and are planning to rewatch all 400+ hours of gameplay.

Here's a short interview which talks a little bit about the genesis of Critical Role and its impact:



This is all news to me, and I find myself feeling really ambivalent about it.

On one hand, people have been crowing about the Death of Roleplaying for a number of decades. It's nice to see the lie put to that particular mindset. Between the OSR movement, creator-produced new RPGs, the renaissance of boardgames, and now the resurgence of D&D, tabletop gaming seems very much alive and well. Indeed, it is far more so than I thought!

In my city, boardgame cafes are one of the most successful businesses going, and they're now opening up in every part of town, like mushrooms sprouting along major streets.

On the other hand, I watched a bit of Critical Role, and I'm a little disappointed by the style of play. It's exactly what I remember of D&D from when I was a teenager, and what a lot of people interested in "story games" were turned off by. People display incredible skill in colourful descriptions, voice acting, and rule mastery. However, it's also full of all the genre tropes, gamer cliches, and counterproductive practices that largely drove me away from D&D in the first place.

For instance, the first session of Critical Role (a game made by and for a mature audience) even has a "let's go to the brothel, pay for sex, and roll Constitution to see how well we did it!" scene.

The DM of the game made a video talking about how to deal with "Player Death" (let's be charitable and assume he meant "character death"). He discusses how difficult and undesireable that can be in a long campaign, but that it's a reality which must be considered, and then described techniques for helping players "get over it". I would have thought that in 2017 a scripted and carefully-considered video about "player death" (ha!) would at least mention the possibility of addressing it via design or gameplay practices, instead of handling it like a dangerous scourge which, like gun crime, alas, isn't wanted but can't always be presented. Not a terribly aware point of view, in my opinion.

I suppose it's a selfish fear of mine that's rearing its ugly head. If millions of people are admiring this kind of roleplaying as the apotheosis of gaming... will the hobby once again be dominated by Illusionist D&D play? Do people look at their favourite celebrities playing D&D and dream of one day gaming in that same style?

I don't know.

What do you think? What are your thoughts, reactions? Is this really a big trend or movement, and how is it affecting the gaming scene?

Are you a fan or Critical Role, or do you know people who are? What is your (or their) relationship to such a form of entertainment?
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Comments

  • I tried to watch one of these for a bit a while back (by an American comedian... Harmonquest is its name, I think?), but couldn't quite get beyond the first episode. I can see how it would work better for somebody who doesn't practice the form themselves, as the perspective would be sufficiently external. For a gamer - or at least for me - all the attention is in the technicalities of what they're doing (not particular luminaries of the form, let's say), and any showcasing of game culture comes off as unnecessary simplification or pandering to cliches.

    I'll note that this phenomenon is likely part and parcel of the direction that popular entertainment has been taking ever since reality tv became a big thing. Watching other people play roleplaying games probably works pretty much by the same logic as watching other people play video games: it's raw, undramatized, low-tension content where you don't need to pay constant attention to every dramatic beat, because it's not orchestrated to be understood that way in the first place. If it's anything like when I watch other people play video games, there's a certain exoticism factor: you want to watch other people do things you specifically don't do yourself, because it's a quick and easy way to learn about that other craft.

    As an interesting comparison, consider the way European musical tradition has evolved over the last 300 years or so: we started in a situation where music was appreciated for creating enveloping sound mats, with long performances that develop themes slowly and generally work well as background music, or music to meditate by. Going forward we see a development towards shorter, more dramatized forms, until in the modern day the basic unit of music is the "song", a succinct 2-3 minute piece. It's a bit like music has been trending to the opposite direction, while narrative art has recently found the technique of rambling like a Baroque orchestra piece: instead of reading a relatively punchy story, you sit and watch 10 hours of somebody playing a slow-paced rpg. An interesting development, that.

    But I guess that's just me musing on why people would want to watch other people play roleplaying games. Regarding your value concerns, I'm not really bothered myself; this phenomenon might bring some more people into roleplaying, mostly D&D, which is good, but it's not going to change the fact that people play what they want to, in the ways they want to. I don't think that the boring Lord of the Rings movies have ruined my enjoyment of the original novel, and neither do I think that more people getting into D&D will ruin my enjoyment of roleplaying. I guess I'm fundamentally elitist about stuff like this: the hoi polloi will do its thing, but what do I care. If roleplaying were going to be ruined by bad D&D, it would have already happened in light of the numbers.

    If well-publicized play of low-quality D&D really does bring a lot of people into the hobby, I would think that it'll be an excellent opportunity to show an ever wider circle of interested and comprehending people how to do neat tricks with roleplaying games. It's often said that a complete newbie is easier to train to play well than somebody exposed to bad D&D, which is true as far as it goes, but it's also true that a person who's interested in improving their roleplaying is a much easier starting point than one who doesn't even know what roleplaying is. I'll be glad to take ten badly trained D&D players delivered to my doorstep instead of having to hunt and convert a single newbie myself - it's less work overall in my experience, even if that newbie would be easier to deal with once I'd found them and convinced them to try the hobby.

    Also, how about this: if playing rpgs does become some sort of a staple of the new bold Internet tv era, wouldn't it make sense that over the long term player skill will become a factor of popularity? Right now it seems that people are getting filmed mostly due to their own effort and interest in videocasting their play, which of course doesn't say much about the quality of that play. But if better play proves more popular on tv, wouldn't there be a selective pressure towards arranging to film the best? It might be that you'll find that the quality of tv play quickly improves once somebody decides to stop filming their own play and tries to get an actually solid group to perform. It's possible that the tv-popular playstyle will be something other than your favourite kind of roleplaying, but I imagine that it's going to be a huge improvement if the stuff they show is good in its own right, even if it's not the one true playstyle [grin].
  • Eero,

    I've seen a handful of minutes of the Dan Harmon stuff, and it's quite different from this - goofy, unpretentious, a self-parody in many respects. If you take a look at the Critical Role material, you'll see that it's quite different. Although I have my quibbles with it, it's definitely "high quality", or at least presented as such. It's well-prepared content, delivered with a high level of skill by professional voice actors.

    That's the source of my fear, in fact: that it's touted as the pinnacle of gaming. (If you read the comments, they are largely along the lines of "I wish I could someday be as great a GM as that guy!" or "It's my dream to one day be part of a group like this.") I think that if I were introduced to D&D by watching something like this, I would likely forever try to imitate it. These people are engaging and funny and attractive and very skilled at what they do. All the things I dislike now were things which initially drew me to roleplaying - when I watch them play, even while the mature, present-day me notices things which bother me and I would never do, my first reaction is that *this is what D&D is supposed to be like, almost like some kind of Platonic ideal.
  • So it's sort of like rpg porn? Pretty funny, that.
  • Perhaps! Certainly there are thousands of adoring fans (including celebrities - I've seen at least one major Hollywood star say in an interview that he watched the campaign religiously, every week).
  • The various players have spin-off YouTube channels and advice series, are guests on other shows, and so forth. In any case, it's certainly glorifying all the "tried-and-true" techniques of classic Illusionist D&D, like character backgrounds that don't matter, pre-plotted content, The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast, "how to get your players not to be murder-hobos", and shopping for magical items. In theory, I have no problem with other people enjoying themselves, but, at some level, it's disappointing.

    If a form of entertainment has such widespread appeal (like, say, modern superhero films) it seems to me that it is bound to be glorified and emulated repeatedly.
  • One of the players in a D&D game I am running is a huge Critical Role fan. I believe it is how she became exposed D&D in the first place. Nonetheless she has taken to my (ahem) philosophically sophisticated non-illusionist OSR megadungeon campaign like a fish to water. So I can't complain too much about Critical Role's influence on the next generation of role-players.

    I tried to watch the show once and see what the hype was about. But I couldn't really get into it, brothels and barroom brawls not being my preferred flavour of fantasy. It would be interesting to figure out what are the positive things about the show that people like so much. Does it have anything to teach us about what makes a good game besides "be a professional actor"?
  • Good questions, Vivificient.

    I'd love to hear what people think. From what I've seen, the show does "classic D&D", along with Illusionist (or, more properly, Participationist) play and a variety of D&D tropes. The performance of the GM and players is certainly a part of the appeal. They are charismatic, creative, and energetic. They voice work and character portrayals are top-notch (despite not always being to my taste). I suspect that's one of the main draws (being as strong as it is). They do a great job of keeping things moving, keeping the energy high, and staying on task, as well as being funny while they do it. The humour may be the second draw.

    The GM is knowledgeable about the rules and extremely well prepared - he has maps and miniatures and sound effects (or background sounds) which he seems to use seamlessly, almost as though it was all happening automatically and effortlessly. In fact, I'm floored by how quickly he manages to look up and track information. For instance, every time a rules question comes up, he says, "I'll look that up," and, within a few seconds, he's got the book open and has the answer, without needing to pause the game. I don't even know how that's possible, but I've only seen two instances so far where they had to pause even momentarily to look something up. (And the GM was wise enough to say, "Hey, let's keep this going, and we'll sort it out later" in one instance.)

    From what I've read, however, it seems that the long-term development of the plot is what keeps viewers watching - they are excited to see what's behind the mysterious events and what will happen to the characters.

    I'd love to hear what someone more familiar with the series than me thinks on this topic. What's the main draw, and what can we learn from the way this game is run?
  • Isn't it a known fact that a well-run trad GM show is pretty good entertainment? My own experience with it is more that it's too much work for too little payout to bother with, than it being fundamentally difficult to achieve. Looking at it historically, it's rarely the players who really push for change in the traditional gaming set-up - usually it's the GM who wants something less GM-centric and more fundamentally interactive.

    If one accepts that premise, then it stands to reason that adding enough of an audience will fundamentally change that creative equation: now you're not performing only for a couple of occasionally underappreciative friends, but rather to a big video audience. The job might even pay something. It doesn't look that different from any television work now, so no reason why it couldn't work: you just put in the hours to prep good sessions, choose players who can do their parts, and do it. It's sort of like improvisational theater insofar as the audience is concerned, isn't it?
  • edited November 2017
    Eero,

    I agree with that, in general. (Oddly enough, though, if I were to play D&D now, I'd far prefer to do as a GM than as a player, however. I find the player's role in a Participationist or Illusionist "Grand D&D campaign" rather limited; not terribly interesting, creatively or tactically. I just joined one recently as an experiment, so I will update that opinion as we go along! The second session is two days away.)

    I'm sure that most of the audience is D&D players, though (or people who wish they played D&D!), so enjoying the vagaries of the game is part of the fun.

    I enjoy the roleplay-heavy scenes (for the GM's skill at creating NPC characters and the sense of a coherent world, and the players' voice work and humour), but the combat sequences get a bit slow for me - lots of rolling and counting up numbers. I think the characters are roughly low mid-level (maybe 5-8?), and in D&D5E that gives them enough special powers and abilities that each round is basically the characters taking turns firing off their next special ability. While the GM's descriptions (remember, he describes *everything*, including how both sides act in combat and what attacks, misses, and special ability use looks like*) are very entertaining, the underlying fiction isn't all that interesting, and the players rarely make any fictionally-relevant decisions. (It's more about "Ok, this monster has fire resistance, so I'll use my Cold Spray spell this turn..." In other words, winning fights - which so far seems to be a given - is a consequence of applying mechanical character abilities in the right order, rather than the clever planning or dumb luck you'd see in an OSR-style game. This is fine, but a little "board gamey" for my tastes. If we were watching this in a movie, for example, we'd find it visually exciting and stimulating but very boring dramatically. Still, the ominous music, frightening monsters, and high energy at the table creates a pretty strong sense of tension, and one character did actually get taken out of commission in a fight I watched yesterday, thanks to a monster ability.)


    * The exception is the occasional "finishing blow" he allows a player to describe him or herself (but then still narrates in his own words), which is considered a huge reward. When you land the killing blow on a monster (and if it's the last monster of the encounter), the GM usually asks the player "How do you want to do this?" The whole table cheers when that happens. One player was incredibly excited when he got the chance to do so, it being his first time to earn that privilege in two years (!!!).
  • For those curious, here are a few of the comments people leave behind:

    "I love #criticalrole because being a grown up caused my D&D group to dissemble [sic], and now I can game vicariously."

    [Presumably they mean "disperse" or something similar.]

    -"Wait the people in chat room was litteraly buying them food..? That's some kind ass followers holy shit."
    -"yeah the critical role fanbase is pretty intense."
    -"@Erick Christensen kind yes, but it was weird that they knew where to send all that wonderful food right?"
    -"@jmanvt222 if im not mistaken they talk with the admins of the stream and get it done through that way. Or where they stream is public knowledge. who knows."

    [Apparently the fans are purchasing food and drinks for the players, which somehow shows up at the session. Mysterious! And remarkable.]

    -"This DM'S voice acting. Holy shit. "
    -"They are all voice actors by trade. But I agree one of the best DM's I've ever seen."
    -" And now I hope my players never find this so I still seem like an awesome DM"
    -"matt [the GM] I would argue is the best of everyone and at the very least has the greatest range out of any voice actor"

    "The quality and entertainment value of this show is honestly beyond words. The voice of Clarota was as perfect as expected. Imagine if they didn't find him?"

    "Matt's talked about how much work he puts into NPC's so there's no reason to assume he wouldn't change things around to use them. The monologue Clarotta has in one episode is read directly from Matt's elaborate backstory notes on the character, which suggests that he was prepared to put him in any secluded place the players may have gone. Why would he do all that work just to leave the meeting to chance? Only Matt knows what he planned to do."

    "Matt is great at both depicting NPC's and (more important) dealing with his unruly group of PC's. It is like herding cats with these folks."

    "Hats off to Matthew for Clarota's voice. It's kinda halfway between Mr Hyde and some arachnid beast you'd see in Lord of the Rings or Mass Effect. ... Could honestly not get enough of that voice."

    "This series has taken over my life! Thank you guys for this awesomeness!!"

    "Matt Mercer, you are the DM people think they are but aren't, want to be but don't have the potential, want to have but can never find."
    You can get a sense of this guy's approach to playing through his series of "DM Tips" videos. They're nicely done and edited but also incredibly dated (for my sensibilities). Most of the advice is straightforward 1990's "How to be an awesome DM" and "How to provide a wonderful service for your players, who hopefully thank you later for all your work" RPG culture. I don't have a problem with that per se, but it's definitely not what I enjoy about roleplaying. Here's a good sample:

  • These actors are skilled. Too bad they have to apply their competence like some people do with cheap cologne.
    The show is fun sometimes but its message (autocratic dominant white male whatever) makes me cringe most of the time.
    A bit like MTV punk or sports on TV. If you don't DIY, you missed the idea.
  • In case you haven't made the connection, I'll say that everything you describe sounds like entirely orthodox TSR-style D&D "advanced GMing" ideology. If you'll read one of those books Gygax wrote about how to be a GM, you'll find that they celebrate exactly this kind of relationship between the GM and the player base. It's all about working hard to prove yourself the rightful master of the table, and thus gaining the rightful accolades of the audience (which traditionally consists of the lesser players you perform for)

    In that regard I guess we're witnessing a situation where the conscientious showman-GM finally gets their due in terms of accolades, thanks to the outside audience. Which is nice, because I've personally found that it was always something of an empty promise, that you could achieve artistic satisfaction and social esteem by being a "great GM". Maybe that works better in the intense club gaming environments of the '70s (where Gygax comes from), or in bigger cities, but I haven't really ever seen a GM being long-term psychologically "fed" and rewarded for hard work in a one-sided entertainment relationship by being worshiped as a "master GM" the way Gygax explains it. The best you can realistically expect in my experience is that the other players are happy to play with you, not that they'll applaud you and pay for your pizza, too [grin].

    So yeah, I hope that works for the guy. He clearly puts a lot of work into this production.
    Paul_T said:

    I agree with that, in general. (Oddly enough, though, if I were to play D&D now, I'd far prefer to do as a GM than as a player, however. I find the player's role in a Participationist or Illusionist "Grand D&D campaign" rather limited; not terribly interesting, creatively or tactically. I just joined one recently as an experiment, so I will update that opinion as we go along! The second session is two days away.)

    I've been forced by circumstance to play various participationist bullshit fantasy games lately. I recommend a relaxed, ironic attitude, with lots of patience; don't try to influence the rhythm of the game, let the other players advance at their own pace. Establish your role as a planner, commentator (comic, but otherwise too) and character-roleplayer: your job is to say out loud what the party needs to do next (sort of light-handed chairmanning), to point out interesting things about the events as they proceed, and to play your character as a lively enactor of the GM's plot.

    I've found that following this advice makes for much more palatable play than we would achieve if I was constantly being difficult about the nature of the game - neither being glumly passive-aggressive nor trying to actively do things I know the game isn't up to supporting isn't constructive in this sort of situation. It's what the crew wants to play, so let's play it seriously rather than sabotaging it. The play can in fact be genuinely entertaining when the GM has their shit together and actually has something semi-interesting to offer in e.g. literary terms. And it helps tremendously in entertaining everybody if there's somebody at the table who's self-aware enough to actively facilitate the GM's plot railroad, and to point out and appreciate the good content (assuming the GM has any).

    Because that was sort of abstract, an example of what I mean by constructive commentary: when the GM established over a few sessions, in various ways, that our fantasy campaign was set in an average-sized client kingdom that was suffering unrest due to separatist tendencies in its western parts, I was the one who pointed out that we were apparently in modern Ukraine, in all but name. I think that we've gained a lot in thematic terms from the GM's attempts at presenting the civil war milieu over the two sessions precisely because I made note of the theme early on, and thus elevated the group's understanding of what the GM was going for. (Apparently he wasn't thinking about Ukraine himself while prepping his material, but the analogy has nevertheless been striking.)
  • Excellent advice, Eero. We're exactly on the same page with regards to both the tradition involved here and the best way to engage with it. (Although I might grow bored and do hunger a little for some more interesting and unusual ways to engage with the game - without ruining it, of course. Sometimes I've had luck convincing such GMs to let me play NPCs or monsters in their game, for example.)
  • edited November 2017
    For those who’ve yet to read it, here is a very interesting article in The New Yorker that talks about the resurgence of D&D that briefly mentions Critical Role:
    https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-uncanny-resurrection-of-dungeons-and-dragons/amp
    And another article that discusses the phenomenon:
    https://www.theverge.com/2017/11/16/16666344/dungeons-and-dragons-twitch-roleplay-rpgs-critical-role-streaming-gaming
  • I've been forced by circumstance to play various participationist bullshit fantasy games lately. I recommend a relaxed, ironic attitude, with lots of patience; don't try to influence the rhythm of the game, let the other players advance at their own pace. Establish your role as a planner, commentator (comic, but otherwise too) and character-roleplayer: your job is to say out loud what the party needs to do next (sort of light-handed chairmanning), to point out interesting things about the events as they proceed, and to play your character as a lively enactor of the GM's plot.

    Very good advice IMHO!

    If the GM allows adding some color, you can also play faux Swords Without Master style, concentrating on the 'how' (tones), and not the 'what'.
  • And it helps tremendously in entertaining everybody if there's somebody at the table who's self-aware enough to actively facilitate the GM's plot railroad, and to point out and appreciate the good content (assuming the GM has any).

    I've often been that guy. Agreed, it helps a ton. I'm kind of hesitant to run such a game without knowing that someone in the group is geared up to do that. One of my design dreams is to find a way to get all the players excited to do that...
  • (I'm up for it anytime, Dave!)
    hamnacb said:


    If the GM allows adding some color, you can also play faux Swords Without Master style, concentrating on the 'how' (tones), and not the 'what'.

    This sounds like good advice. Can you illustrate with an example? I'm not 100% sure what you mean.

  • edited November 2017
    Jeff,

    Oddly enough, I'd read that first article you linked just a few weeks ago. It reads somewhat differently to me now that I've caught up to this phenomenon a little more in-depth.

    Here's an ominous quote from it:

    “I’ve had parents get very upset with me,” said Freeman, who recently opened another store near Columbia University. “Because they sign their kids up for role playing and my staff is trying to expand their horizons beyond D. & D. and into other independent games. But the parents are, like, ‘If they can’t play D. & D., then I don’t know if this is going to work.’ ”

    That's worrisome to me! I've had people approach me in the past with an interest in D&D, but they generally were very open to whatever I had to offer. However, if the brand carries such a weight because of film spots, celebrity endorsements, and so forth, that's a different kettle of fish.

    The second article ends by talking a little more about a variety of games, which is nice.


    “Generally speaking, I think right now the entertainment industry is coming to terms with how lo-fi a lot of these incredibly popular new media projects are,” says James D’Amato, an RPG live-streamer, games podcaster, and game designer in Chicago. “I don’t think people are watching those programs because of the animation.”

    D’Amato got a foothold in the actual-play industry when he realized almost every tabletop streamer was focusing on Dungeons & Dragons at the expense of other RPGs. “[D&D is] very famous and very fun at what it does, but there’s this wide spectrum of possibilities in role-playing games,” he explained. D’Amato, a former travel agent and aspiring comedian who recently quit his day job to pursue gaming media full time, built his highly engaged audience by playing through all kinds of RPGs on his One Shot Network.

    Pretty fascinating. I had no idea until about 48 hours ago how widespread this was, or how much impact it was having. It seems like the people involved are selling merchandise, getting hired for all kinds of acting and voiceover work, being invited to host panel discussions and travel around the world.

    They are considering a more "live" version, as well, where they tour with a group, but haven't figured out the best way to do this just yet.

    Fascinating.
  • edited November 2017
    Paul_T said:


    That's worrisome to me! I've had people approach me in the past with an interest in D&D, but they generally were very open to whatever I had to offer. However, if the brand carries such a weight because of film spots, celebrity endorsements, and so forth, that's a different kettle of fish.

    I wouldn’t worry too much about it, Paul. The channel that hosts Critical Role, which is called Geek and Sundry, has also made Dread, Fiasco, Misspent Youth and others more popular. People are getting into other games. Dread has been one of the top games selling on IPR for weeks now because of it, and Misspent Youth recently had a Kickstarter to meet the new sale’s demands.
    Paul_T said:


    Pretty fascinating. I had no idea until about 48 hours ago how widespread this was, or how much impact it was having. It seems like the people involved are selling merchandise, getting hired for all kinds of acting and voiceover work, being invited to host panel discussions and travel around the world.

    Yes, Green Ronin even made a campaign setting book based on the Critical Role setting and it has been one of the top selling books in the Gaming and Teens sections for weeks on Amazon. I say the more gamers the better. They will get into other stuff with time as they explore and/or get older. Even if a lot don’t, I think it is cool more people are getting into D&D. I see it more as a glass half-full kind of thing, than a glass half-empty kind of thing.
  • I've watched some Critical Role — about… 20 or so episodes, with over 90 episodes downloaded and being prepped to watch? So, like, I kind of have an appreciation over why it's so popular, despite the fact that each damn episode is at least three hours long.

    I also have a suspicion that the reason why Matt Mercer appears so incredibly competent with regards to referencing D&D rules is that part of the crew (the folks behind the camera) are very well-versed with the rules and are able to provide the DM and players with rules information very quickly during the live stream. Which, I think, is totally a necessity when you're trying to reach large audiences on a live medium, and completely understandable. They've got the production values, so that's fine. There's a lot of work that goes behind that, which helps with the accessibility, even if it is a little deceptive.

    It's kind of funny that we're talking about Critical Role because my interest in the whole “watching people roleplay” also coincided with Roll 20 offering their own let's play videos on their channel with Adam Koebbel (of the Dungeon World fame) as Dungeon Master. Adam does a fairly good job, and his selection is most definitely not limited to D&D — I've seen him play Dungeon World (obviously), Burning Wheel, Sprawl and even old-school Mage: the Ascension (completely enough to make me realize how deeply frustrating that game was, system-wise).

    And I think that's kind of the point, to me as well? While I recognize that Critical Role is a sort of ideal that is, frankly, impossible to achieve — I'm not a voice actor, I don't have production values, I can't bracket my work and time to do the sort of things that Matt Mercer and his crew manage to pull off — it does give me a kind of expectation to what kind of fun I'll be getting with D&D and what's possible. And it's a lot!

    I recall an earlier conversation (more an argument really) about how it's hard to figure out this whole tabletop RPG thing without seeing it in action. And seeing not only Critical Role (which adopts a certain kind of style that I've decided not to attempt, because I can see the amount of work it could take), but Koebbel's work in Roll 20, and even some rough work in podcasts and more informal “Let's Play” tabletop games I've seen on YouTube, it gives you an idea of what the experience is like. Which I appreciate. It helps that I know for a fact that Critical Role aren't the only game in town, and for their work, however seriously Illlusionist/Participationist they are, there's stuff like this, that's kind of like an antidote:





    I mean, it's a bunch of ironic hipsters mucking about with Boston accents and crab-claw swords, which is like the opposite of Critical Role, honestly. And it works, especially when all you've got is a local culture that's really wedded into one kind of roleplay, and all you get is second-hand reports of how it's done without the emotional nuance and experience. Heck, when I started I didn't know games could take three to six hours and that so little could be done, especially with players and GMs goofing off. Knowing that other people face this issue, even in highly-professional environments like Critical Role, takes the edge off.
  • Isn't it a known fact that a well-run trad GM show is pretty good entertainment? My own experience with it is more that it's too much work for too little payout to bother with, than it being fundamentally difficult to achieve. Looking at it historically, it's rarely the players who really push for change in the traditional gaming set-up - usually it's the GM who wants something less GM-centric and more fundamentally interactive.

    That view certainly seems to be supported by examining the types of pushback you see against games that involve players taking more GM type duties or having the ability to do stuff outside of the fiction and outside of their character. Games with very distributed GM powers get especially large amounts of pushback, IME.

  • Hi Paul et al,

    Personally, I see this phenomenon as a good thing for story gaming.

    My own story started with D&D, and D&D was fun when I was a kid, but dissatisfaction with many of its problems brought me to explore other games, and (eventually) brought me to story games.

    I feel confident that other people will make the same journey, and discover story games through D&D. Without D&D, it's unlikely that many people would ever get exposed to story games at all.

    Will story games ever have their heyday, where talented actors are playing them online and getting a huge audience? I think it will happen, just give it some time. Don't forget that we're on the bleeding edge of gaming here. D&D has been around for almost 50 years at this point, and it's only starting to reach the mainstream. It's going to take a while before Story Games can do the same thing. Will it be 10 years? 20 years? 50 years? Who knows?

    In the meantime, I wish the Critical Role folks and their audience some happy gaming.

    --Jon
  • Paul_T said:


    hamnacb said:


    If the GM allows adding some color, you can also play faux Swords Without Master style, concentrating on the 'how' (tones), and not the 'what'.

    This sounds like good advice. Can you illustrate with an example? I'm not 100% sure what you mean.
    In Sw/oM the dice results are less about success/failure than about tone/atmosphere. The question is not 'Do I succeed or fail?' but 'How do I do what I do?' My deeds could be glum or jovial or anything like that. I can concentrate on improvising cool narrations because I dont really have to worry about the results.

    In participationist gaming rolling is often a 'spicy roll'. The dice only determines the 'how', not the 'what'. I can roll nearly anything but the plot will go forward. With detours maybe. So I shouldnt worry too much about the results.

    What I will worry about is: 'Can I maintain the concept and image of my character whatever I roll?' If the GM allows some impact on interpreting the results (giving suggestions or adding some color ... as Matt Mercer does this with natural 20s), than the situation looks very similar from a player POV. Of course it's fake but at least it's more than making funny voices as my PC flings his swords and slays orcs...
  • edited November 2017
    I hear what you're saying, but I'm not sure what that looks like in practice in a D&D game.

    For instance, in the last session I played, that classic thing happened where I tried to do something I though was cool and heroic, but I rolled poorly, so the DM narrated me making a fool of myself, instead. Is there a way to apply this idea in a situation like that?
  • Paul_T said:

    I hear what you're saying, but I'm not sure what that looks like in practice in a D&D game.

    For instance, in the last session I played, that classic thing happened where I tried to do something I though was cool and heroic, but I rolled poorly, so the DM narrated me making a fool of myself, instead. Is there a way to apply this idea in a situation like that?

    I dont think so. If you cannot determine neither the 'what' nor the 'how', then you are not even 'participating'. You are just trying to guess what kind of action the plot needs and rolling some dice. That could be gaming - something similar to watching a whodunnit movie as an audience.

    Maybe there is a case where you can maintain your idea about your character. If you can somehow ignore the GMs narration and develop something like a 'split shared imagined space' attitude. 'Yes, you as a GM said that my PC sucked but thats just colorful spicing from your part which doesnt really count, because I own my PC and I imagine her to be very-very cool.' Thats a very unhealthy approach but I've seen people doing that out of desperation.

    To change that you need to let your players (partially) interpret the results, to determine the 'how.'
    Or to be the fan of the characters, and to know them very well, so you can always keep them still cool.
    Mercer is good at both of these!
  • I suppose it would be sort of fundamental to establish color narration as something that everybody can do, right? As long as the GM maintains an exclusive privilege to impose their imaginary detail, and actively challenges any attempts by the players to open their mouths, it's not going to work.

    The two main strategies in this regard would be to be explicit, or be implicit. Being explicit means talking it over with the GM and agreeing with them that yes, it is actually more fun if the players get to describe things, too. A particularly control-freak GM might need all sorts of assurances - for example, something like this:
    * We're not talking about effective manipulation of significant outcomes, but rather only about minor detail that should rightly be below the attention of a busy GM, anyway. What's it to you, the mighty master of dragons and kings, whether my character swings their sword vertically or horizontally?
    * Of course you, the GM, will have veto on anything we say, so you just need to sit back and correct it if anybody says something that doesn't fit in the game. You're not actually giving away any control by allowing players to open their mouths. You're the one who knows what's important, anyway, so if a player accidentally steps out of reservation, it's no big deal to fix their narrative contribution in real time, case by case.

    The implicit approach would be to simply start talking at the right times and see how the GM reacts. This is what I usually do, and it is the rare GM who reacts to it by calling me on it and forbidding player narration. The most one tends to see is the GM conscientiously "correcting" everything one says, but that's all well and good - worrying over what actually happens in the fiction is for the small minds, you're getting what you want by simply being able to be heard, even if the GM follows you everywhere and picks your litter carefully to make sure nobody starts believing that your rap has any credibility in the fiction.

    Either way you go, the reality is that the "color" element of roleplaying game narration is fundamentally a mercilessly competitive verbal art. The goal is to be vivid and impressive, and only that matters in the end, in terms of enjoying play and crafting your character as a memorable protagonist. If the social contract allows you to open your mouth, and your stuff is better than the GM's, they don't really have any recourse against the fact that what is truly satisfying, what sticks to mind about the game experience, is your show.

    A healthy human being in the role of the GM will of course recognize soon that it's actually useful for the creative goals of the game that you contribute color commentary on the game, and communicate about how you wish to portray your own character. I'm not nearly as trigger-happy as some people are about throwing people overboard, but I have to say that a GM who doesn't get this after experiencing it in practice may not be worth keeping - they're too much of a control freak, and a participationist game turns into a no game at all if one insists that the players aren't even allowed to speak at the table. It's the bare minimum of rights that I recognize for a functional roleplaying game: you have to be able to shoot the breeze with the other players, joke around, comment upon the events in the game, describe stuff your character does, even if the GM gets absolute veto over what gets to be actionable in the game and what ends up being just talk. Trying to take that away is the last line.

    By the way, talking over and around the GM - great fun, assuming proper social decorum is upheld. At times in a participationist game you'll find that playing your character true to their nature will easily sideline them. This will happen to you much easier than it does to the average zombie duck player, too, as the zombie duck's character will obviously always just follow the party wherever the party (and the plot) is going. Meanwhile, you care more for the credibility of the fiction and your character's characterization, so you may easily end up sort of not participating on various scenes as the game goes on. For example, your character might be the one guy in the party who decides to not join the group in shadowing the one character who's got a date tonight, because, well, that's sort of a creepy thing to do if you're not a trad rpg character.

    So what you do at those times is, you're a full-time commentator player for the game. Not really that different from when your character is in the scene, really - it's again pretty small-minded to care about your own character to the exclusion of everything else. Obviously you'll ask clarifying questions about the milieu from the GM, and about their characters from the other players - draw out the good stuff for everybody to appreciate. And you provide unasked-for dialogue for both PCs and NPCs, to provide helpful jumping-off points for the other players. Provoke the GM to either play their hand or fold, instead of feeding their content in drips and drabs.

    In a word, I'm sort of a nightmare for the hypothetical control freak GM, because the way I've come to understand participationist play is that I really am supposed to engage in a creative dialogue, even if it so happens that the plot of the game is not up for grabs [grin]. Fortunately the control freak GM seems to be pretty much a mythological beast; I've been a trad GM myself for long years on end, I know perfectly well that what you generally want is players who actually engage the game actively and pay attention to your efforts. It just might seem a bit counter-intuitive what that engagement looks like in practice: you'll end up spending a lot of time riffing comedy off the events of the game, providing dialogue for various characters and generally meddling in the proceedings in thoroughly informal ways.

    As an amusing anecdote about how this sort of thing works in practice, I'll note that last winter we played a bit of Call of Cthulhu here in Upper Savo, with a very traditional GM. I ended up playing through an entire werewolf detective mystery scenario with no character at all. (I had a couple of characters left over from the previous scenario, but the new scenario's adventure hook didn't fit them, so I just decided that they'd stay home and let the investigators with more motivation field this one.) Every time the crew asked me about it, I just told them that I'll pick up a character when the party comes to need some particular talent, or some engaging NPC comes up to naturally join the scenario. As it happened this never occurred, so I played something like four sessions in a row without a character in the game. I learned - not particularly to my surprise - that this did not affect the way I played in any way; the things I did at the table were the same exact things I was doing when I had a character in the campaign. I kibitzed about investigation planning, asked clarifying questions, made hypotheses, provided speaking voices for various characters, made sure the main detective in the group had lively internal debates about moral conundrums, and so on. Fun play in fact, even as the GM totally flubbed the pacing out of some misplaced effort to emulate wargame logic (as in, "this adventure will not go anywhere until you find the right hotspot to click, even if that means we'll sit here for three sessions doing essentially nothing").
  • hamnacb said:

    Maybe there is a case where you can maintain your idea about your character. If you can somehow ignore the GMs narration and develop something like a 'split shared imagined space' attitude. 'Yes, you as a GM said that my PC sucked but thats just colorful spicing from your part which doesnt really count, because I own my PC and I imagine her to be very-very cool.' Thats a very unhealthy approach but I've seen people doing that out of desperation.

    Yes, this is something I touched upon above in my cross-post. I don't think that it's unhealthy, though - rather, I think that this phenomenon of competing visions is rather fundamental to how roleplaying even works. I think players flinging "alternative interpretations" of events around is healthy because of how it contributes inspiration to the game, and because of how it helps keep the GM honest in creative terms: they'll really need to be actually interesting, or why would the other people even care about what they say.

    I see this technique of competing, parallel fictions being utilized all the time in all sorts of roleplaying games. For a time around the beginning of the decade I even sort of forgot that it's not a given for some people, but meeting some really fuddy-duddy roleplayers in Helsinki reminded me that some people actually get confused about "what the NPC really said" if three people are throwing out suggestions all at once [grin].

    So yeah, I think it's entirely viable at most tables to actively fight for your character vision. In fact, it's not that difficult to hijack the setting vision, or any other vision you'd care to name, if you want to for some reason. In social terms I encourage a positive, friendly attitude, and a willingness to let ideas float out there on their own merits: don't fight over whose vision gets to be official, just say your piece now, and the next time say it again, and continue saying it when necessary. If it is true, it will take over in time.

    A minor technical hint for when you're being sneaky and doing this stuff without talking about it explicitly in advance: never negate anything anybody says. Don't say "No, my character instead does this other thing" when you can just say "Yeah, my character does this [not at all what you said]". Just no point elevating the color narration to the level of narrative authority contest when all you want is for your voice to be heard.

    For instance, if the GM is in the habit of humiliating your character in a game where you'd much rather play a dashing hero, I think it's quite feasible to just tell everybody how you see your character, every time it comes up. The very worst thing that can happen is that the character gives off an impression as something of a buffoon if the GM's narration is consistently more compelling and your alternative takes start to seem more like desperate lies the character tells to themself [grin]. More likely, the narrative themes and ideas you consistently communicate will start to infect the way others at the table narrate, which ultimately leads to their vision of your character converging on yours, at which point they'll start producing narratives that are more to your liking.
  • edited November 2017


    if the GM is in the habit of humiliating your character in a game where you'd much rather play a dashing hero, I think it's quite feasible to just tell everybody how you see your character, every time it comes up. The very worst thing that can happen is that the character gives off an impression as something of a buffoon if the GM's narration is consistently more compelling and your alternative takes start to seem more like desperate lies the character tells to themself [grin]. More likely, the narrative themes and ideas you consistently communicate will start to infect the way others at the table narrate, which ultimately leads to their vision of your character converging on yours, at which point they'll start producing narratives that are more to your liking.

    Thank you for pointing out my false beliefs! Its a very nice analysis and advice too.
    > I've just realized that in inplicit (trad) roleplaying you should always try to communicate your vision of the game because this is your only way to set your boundaries and to influence the fiction as a player.
    > As status theories say if you fight for something, you already positioned yourself as a struggler. You should always stick to your vision without arguing about it. Persistance will help you to win.

    Also, your CoC anecdote reveals the true nature of illusionist roleplaying in a very sardonic way.
  • Eero,

    Wonderful; that's a minor essay of epic proportions on engaging with this style of gaming. Thought provoking, and a good analysis. Thank you!

    hamnacb,

    Fair enough! What *would* be an illustrative example, then? I'd still like to get a sense of what you're suggesting here. It sounds useful and applicable, but I just can't quite picture how to put it into practice.
  • As for the larger topic at hand, Eero has talked a little about the "well-known" entertainment value of a heavily GM-led Illusionist or Participationist game. I think that's an interesting - and perhaps even lightly provocative - statement. I'm not sure I agree ("not sure" meaning just that - I'd have to think about this further, not a passive-aggressive way to indicate I disagree), but I'd like to consider that possibility and get your opinions on it.

    If story gaming is, indeed, catching on as a form of passive entertainment, the form that it takes for the audience is important. Is it possible that GM-led Illusionist or Participationist gaming (in the style of Critical Role, or something like it - a carefully-prepared "GM plot" which the players take part in) is, indeed, more entertaining to watch?

    Without reflecting on the artistic value or how much fun it might be as a participant I wonder if there is truth to that statement. Can a fully collaborative, improvised game which relies a fair bit on "out-of-character" conversation be as entertaining for an outside viewer as this kind of game? Less so? More so?

    What do you think? What have you seen so far, and what do you think we're likely to see?
  • I'll clarify that I was not thinking in relative terms when I characterized the "GM's story hour" kind of game as well-known established entertainment. If I had to rank whether it's more interesting to watch that than some other style of rpg, that'd be a much more complex question.

    What I intended to say was simply that it is well-known that a well-prepared, skilled storyteller is good entertainment. Putting that into a rpg context does not change the factors, except if the GM ruins their format (which GMs admittedly are prone to do, historically - it's nowhere near a given that a trad GM will perform their role as a storyteller well). Storytellers have competed with e.g. movies not quite until today, but close; at least here in Finland a storyteller was a legit form of children's tv programming up until the late '80s at least; you just get a charismatic storyteller, maybe give them a chalkboard or something to draw on, and let them tell a story. Looking further back into history, storytelling was probably the most popular form of entertainment outside sex in most preindustrial societies, winning over other perennial favourites like music and cat-torture.

    That being the case, I am not surprised if it is possible to put up an entertaining rpg show. A participationist game is essentially a storytelling event with some highly stylized storytelling techniques. I'll take it as a given that it's going to work, provided you do it well.

    That aside, I wouldn't be keen to make any claims about the relative entertainment value of being an audience to different sorts of games. That's very much similar to trying to gauge which is more entertaining, a sports event or a concert - how do you judge that, except in hindsight over a given population, using popularity as your measure? For individuals it's always going to depend on what they're accustomed to, and what they're looking for.
  • Fears about illusionism are overrated. Illusionism is the default game mode because the majority of players, like the consumers of mass media, are complacent and entirely content to be led by the nose through an adventure. They want to be walked through one combat encounter after another with the occasional social encounter. The heavy lifting falls on the GM’s shoulders. The players want to be passive participants in the GM’s story, occasionally contributing accented quips as they brutalize NPCs, grab the McGuffin, and save the princess.

    Illusionism is the lowest common denominator of RPG playing. It requires little of the players, and they are satisfied with this. Illusionism is perfectly acceptable for most RPG players for this reason. I do not disparage them for this, mind you. I’m sure my time smacks of RPG elitism, but I am hardly that sort (my preference is player-directed traditional gaming). People ought to play what they enjoy, and illusionist games can be immensely enjoyable with the right people.

    By that same token, D&D is the McDonald’s of RPGs. It is ubiquitous, accessible, and acceptably palatable. It can fulfill a variety of tastes as long as though tastes have a distinctly fast food flavor. You can do heroic fantasy, you can do dark fantasy, you can do science fantasy, you can do horror fantasy...as long as that fantasy flavor has that D&D feel (not too heroic, not too gritty, not too far removed from grid-based combat with an emphasis on resource management).

    I should reiterate the above sentiments: dissatisfaction with D&D breeds different games. Without D&D, there would be no PbtA or Burning Wheel or Hillfolk. The more RPGs spread in popularity, the more people will play other games, including storygames. More people will synthesize and house rule and publish story-focused games. Illusionism or not, we are in the midst of a gaming renaissance.
  • edited November 2017
    Very interesting points about storytelling and the entertainment value of games.

    The flip side is that it would be very hard to achieve the same production values with a more open-ended game. You couldn't have all the perfect props and sound cues lined up and ready if you didn't know what was going to happen.

    I'm thinking especially how much harder it would be to make a hit video show playing one-off story games like Microscope. You wouldn't achieve the same branding with recurring characters and settings. The actors and their personalities could still be a draw, if they were fun to watch and good at improv. But I can't imagine the same kind of dedicated fans, fan-art, merchandising, and so on.
    In that regard I guess we're witnessing a situation where the conscientious showman-GM finally gets their due in terms of accolades, thanks to the outside audience.
    This seems like a good way to think of it. In that sense, a related phenomenon is the rise of paid GMs. The GM takes on the full responsibility to provide a great experience for some people, and expects to be recognized for their work and skill in doing so.
  • edited November 2017
    The same channel, Geek & Sundry, has done Fiasco, and it was pretty entertaining. Here it is, if anyone wants to see how a more collaborative gaming session comes across:

    Part 1:


    Part 2:
  • This thread is good because it approaches aesthetics (I don't like that, people do), ethics (the "attitude" is cool, but what about the teenager who watches it), economy (they have a market now), sociology (the target audience is not my group). I like the analogy between McDo's and D&D. It strengthens my impression that these things are more than a "matter of taste", they are political also.

    About RPG in general, D&D included, I am confident : the medium promotes evolution on part of the players. But about this webshow I am less confident : good practices are too sloppily enforced.

    The shows with Koebel are really good. They also are less produced, less repeatable, less about money. I identify my sociological group as the target audience.
  • Live and let live.
  • I am quite fond of the Fiasco episode, and watching it is what finally made Fiasco make sense to me (after failing to play it successfully a handful of times).

    However, we should also note that the episode of Fiasco is very carefully and specifically edited, which is quite a contrast to the "live" RPG play of something like Critical Role.
  • Paul_T said:


    However, we should also note that the episode of Fiasco is very carefully and specifically edited, which is quite a contrast to the "live" RPG play of something like Critical Role.

    Yes, I think this might be more necessary when doing an episode with a more collaborative RPG, in order to cut down on the player-negotiation and other talk that isn’t as central to the story.
  • edited November 2017
    My adventures joining the trad D&D group continue, but I will report on that elsewhere. Meanwhile, here is a quote from a video by a fellow named Matt Colville (who has a popular stream of "How to D&D" videos) about the finale of the series. He appears to be a bit of a YouTube D&D celebrity himself.

    As you can see, he has a really high opinion and appreciation of this particular D&D campaign as art. He is talking about a combat outcome from the final "boss fight" which led to the (potential) death for one of the other characters. At times he seems to have tears in his eyes as he speaks. I quote from the video:

    "[...] everything that happened in that game, I think, led to that moment... and, if Sam had been able to pull it off, then I think the story of that game would be written very differently.

    "And, because I didn't notice it when it happened - because I think most people didn't notice it when it happened - I just wanted to make a video calling attention to it, and saying, you know, "Congratulations" to those guys for creating this... work of art - how else do you describe it? This Great Work, with a capital "G" and a capital "W", that, you know, was ephemeral [...] there are rules and there are plans, but, as you saw, those plans do not survive contact with the enemy.

    "We're all just incredibly lucky, I think, to get to share this experience and talk about it together. [...] You know, I'm sure there are other moments like this in other Dungeons & Dragons games (like I said, not in mine! ...at least not yet), but a unique moment in the history of this game [...]

    "You know, all artistic revolutions are predicated on an earlier technological revolution. You don't get [...] Jimi Hendrix until you have the electric guitar [other examples follow] you don't get Rembrandt and Caravaggio until someone figures out how to paint with oil [...] and you don't get Critical Role until you have streaming services like Twitch.

    "That's the technology on which this artistic moment is built. Because it was the climax of the game - because 35,000 people are watching it - Matt [the DM of Critical Role] got a lot of flak online, which I think is just the price anyone who streams a game is gonna have to pay." [He proceeds to talk about "mistakes" made by the DM and group, and who they aren't, really, mistakes at all.]

    "[...] given what I just showed you - I mean, is that not the most astonishing, satisfying, dramatic, emotional moment that you've seen in a game? It is for me. It certainly is for me: it's head and shoulders above anything else that I've seen."

  • In that regard I guess we're witnessing a situation where the conscientious showman-GM finally gets their due in terms of accolades, thanks to the outside audience. Which is nice, because I've personally found that it was always something of an empty promise, that you could achieve artistic satisfaction and social esteem by being a "great GM". Maybe that works better in the intense club gaming environments of the '70s (where Gygax comes from), or in bigger cities, but I haven't really ever seen a GM being long-term psychologically "fed" and rewarded for hard work in a one-sided entertainment relationship by being worshiped as a "master GM" the way Gygax explains it. The best you can realistically expect in my experience is that the other players are happy to play with you, not that they'll applaud you and pay for your pizza, too [grin].

    Yeah. Those comments make the show sound like a trad GM fantasy come true. You prepare for a masterful, interactive performance, and everyone can see and appreciate how much work you put in it.
  • edited November 2017
    Very true! I think that's what every GM wishes for (at least according to stereotype), but, as Eero says, that hope is rarely if ever truly achieved.

    Here's another interesting quote from that last video (any Forge head is going to feel their "Creative Agenda" antennae crawl out of wherever they normally hide):

    [What if they had lost the fight?] "They want a satisfying ending. If they had lost - if Vecna had won - but it was the way it should have gone. This is the result of where the dice fell. Yeah, we lost, but that's how it should have been. It would have been sad, because Vecna, the bad guy, wins, but they would have left satisfied. That's what's important to me: that feeling that, win or lose, we know that this is how it would have gone; that this is real."

    There's a lot to unpack in there, and I wonder how many would agree with his interpretation of what he was watching happen. Has anyone ever seen a D&D campaign like this go on for 5 years and then end in defeat? Would it be more or less likely to happen if 35,000 people were tuning in at that moment?

    Very interesting stuff.

    "It's gonna be at the top of my list of extraordinary moments in games, and this time it's not a game I played in, or a game I ran -
    it's a game I watched. ...And I don't think it will be topped.

    "Yeah, I'll go on record: I don't think that moment, with Sam using his 9th-level spell to Counterspell Vecna, to keep Vecna in the battle, to force Vecna to lose, thereby sacrificing his chance to save his best friend... I don't think that will ever be topped."

  • I see this technique of competing, parallel fictions being utilized all the time in all sorts of roleplaying games. For a time around the beginning of the decade I even sort of forgot that it's not a given for some people, but meeting some really fuddy-duddy roleplayers in Helsinki reminded me that some people actually get confused about "what the NPC really said" if three people are throwing out suggestions all at once [grin].

    I'm one of those fuddy-duddy players, but I think this is really the actual norm in RPGs, even if you present it as hopelessly regressive. This is why so many RPGs have us track stuff and have the GM be the final arbiter - it's because players value unified shared imagined space so much.
  • Yes, I think this might be more necessary when doing an episode with a more collaborative RPG, in order to cut down on the player-negotiation and other talk that isn’t as central to the story.

    Whether or not removing those bits makes for a more entertaining video I suppose is up for debate, but if the point of Actual Play videos is to inform (if even passively) as much as it is to entertain, then certainly removing the "meta" nuts and bolts actually does a disservice, doesn't it?

    These kinds of negotiations are as much a part of the game as the...how to say, the parts that engage directly with the game's framework? Especially in the case of "storygaming," I'd argue that they're a huge part of what differentiates storygame play from trad. You'd be missing out on demonstrating a valuable technique to other roleplayers. I'd almost go so far as to call it (harsh language warning!) highly disingenuous to cut those parts.

    To be fair, I don't normally find audio and/or visual APs to be particularly entertaining for "the story (that is, the one that the participants are ostensibly creating through play)," I only really listen to/watch them with the goal of broadening my technical horizons. To wit, this may be why I especially can't get into APs of trad games.
  • Agreed, with very, very few exceptions. I have an idea for a channel where we'd play a game and tape it, then edit it down, but most importantly: then I would insert voiceovers and overlays explaining the mechanics of what was going on, showing which tables were referred to, and even discussing the choices being made by the GM at that moment in time. To me, this info is more appealing than the "story" itself, and the purpose shifts from entertainment to "education" re this game or that game.



  • edited November 2017
    yukamichi said:

    Whether or not removing those bits makes for a more entertaining video I suppose is up for debate, but if the point of Actual Play videos is to inform (if even passively) as much as it is to entertain, then certainly removing the "meta" nuts and bolts actually does a disservice, doesn't it?

    In a way it does a disservice. I don’t think it would be necessary to cut out all player-negotiation—you would keep the essential and entertaining negotiation—and I definitely agree player-negotiation is an important part of collaborative, GMless Story Games. What I was most referring to was extraneous or less essential talk generally. I definitely think more editing would be necessary to make a collaborative, GMless Story Game channel competitive with something like Critical Role. Eric Vulgaris has a Story Game channel called Once Upon a Game that doesn’t have any editing and it gives you an idea of what it would look like without editing. I personally love Eric’s channel but I don’t think it could draw the masses it the way CR does.

  • It's interesting, because Critical Role is also unedited and has a lot of oddball humour, side conversations, and so forth.

    However, a lot of the "negotiations" which happen in gaming aren't present, because:

    1. The group had been playing for two years already, meaning that all kinds of details and all kinds of procedures had already become second nature to them.

    2. The pre-plotted, traditional nature of the game meant that much of the material could be prepared ahead of time.

    I read that the DM, at least, would prepare and work on the NPC voices ahead of the game. And you can see that many of the colourful descriptions he delivers are scripted - again, he wrote them before the game. He has handouts for maps and other details, again, prepared before the game.

    While the game is still raw and unedited, in a way that's a form of editing before it hits the stream. (For instance, he would have edited his descriptions until they were right on the money, and then he can deliver them without hesitation in play.)

    Hard(er) to do that in collaborative gaming.
  • Thinking of my own play experiences, I wouldn't expect egalitarian gaming with high improvisation quotient to be at any fundamental disadvantage in entertainment compared to a carefully prepped GM strutting their stuff. On the one hand you've got, well, careful prep, but on the other you have not one, but e.g. five people contributing their ingenuity in a way that's impossible for a trad game.

    Of course the content's going to be different, and the strengths and weaknesses also in different places: a GMed game won't suffer as much for having a dummy at the table, and a railroaded structure enables more detailed prepping. Meanwhile, an egalitarian game will bring the fundamental creative processes to the fore right there and then, for an unparalleled intimate look into how stories actually get made.

    Ultimately, other things being equal, I would expect it to come down to the nature of the cast: if you have five talented people to work with (and I mean talented roleplayers, not actors), then I'll pretty much wager money on them producing more and better content per time unit when playing an egalitarian game than when being bottlenecked by a powerful GM. If you have weak links in the group, a powerful GM can cover for them, provided the GM's up to it.

    Also, the nature of the entertainment: are you there for story, or are you there to see a bunch of people perform a difficult craft with high artistry? If the former, then a GMed railroad is a pretty obvious choice, frankly; if the latter, then I expect you'll want the core creativity to actually occur at the table, where you can see the magic. Probably you want a bit of both, of course.

    My experience doesn't support the idea that there would be more content-empty table talk in a proge game as compared to a trad one. That part's strictly a function of social style and quality of play, I think. I've seen it go both ways, sometimes to ridiculous degrees. This holds true even if we (for some unfathomable reason) consider rules-talk to be ancillary, that's just a matter of choosing a system with suitable points of contact. Play something like say S/lay w/ Me (example chosen due to fresh experience with it), and you'll have much, much less rules-talk than even the most minimal D&D table can achieve.

    In summation: pick a GMless story game with good rules, and put together a group that actually knows the game well enough to not stop to reference the rules every five minutes, and you should get about as interesting a show as you'd get with a GM. Different, of course, but no less engaging for an audience interested in that sort of thing.
  • edited November 2017
    What @ValyrianSteelKatana said about passive players mirrors my own experience, sort of.

    I've never seen anyone put in all the time and effort to make a D&D character and not come to the table with the desire to get to be that character in some fashion. Usually the minimum is getting to be cool in the ways in which that character is cool. If the GM affords them no opportunity to do that, then no, I don't think many players are completely content to be completely passive. (At least not initially. Maybe some of them get used to it over time.)

    That said, given a few chances to be cool, I do think such players do tend to enjoy being along for the ride most of the time, assuming the ride is a decent one.

    I don't know whether such players are a majority, but they certainly might be.

    I'd say most skilled storytellers are way more entertaining than most GMs, but being inside the story and having the opportunity to experience it as if you're there makes a huge difference IMO. I'd rather spend 4 hours walking around in a Grade B plot than 4 hours simply listening to a Grade A plot.

    I've done some design work on a game that would make this sort of player-GM dynamic explicit, but I wonder whether over-stating the player's role is more alluring.
  • edited November 2017
    Paul_T said:

    What *would* be an illustrative example, then? I'd still like to get a sense of what you're suggesting here. It sounds useful and applicable, but I just can't quite picture how to put it into practice.

    Let's say we are fighting with the antagonist and his goons at the end of the session in a participationist game. Can we defeat him? I should not care about that because the GM already decided that in advance. Maybe he will die, maybe he will flee or (seem to) die in the collapse of the cave, I dont know.

    I should also not interrupt his monologue to shoot at him because the point is not to cause him as much damage as possible but to meaningfully engage with the story of the GM.

    I should also not care about whether I roll high on my attack roll or not, because the GM can lower or raise the antagonist's HP whenever he wants.

    Let's say I want to show the coolness of my character, so I decide to fight with the (weak) goons. Unfortunately I roll low but I dont panic and dont try to find the most effective feat combo. I just show how I struggle against their superior number. I narrate that and then shout 'You cannot stop our movement! Your reign will end here!', because I'm a freedom fighter. Later I roll good so I narrate the way I subdue most of them and make wooshy-wooshy sounds with my swords. Then one of them stabs me in the back with a crit. No worry! :) I narrate the way I collapse and my final rattlings before I faint. 'You can put out the torch but cannot stop the wildfire!' The GM will not let me die if my character is important in the story :)

    My satisfaction with the fight comes from being able to connect with the story, maintaining the vision of my character, communicating the notion of freedom fighting which is important to my as a player, and not from winning the fight. My player skills and my luck have only partial effect on the latest, but the first three depends on me.

    Is that a good example for you?

  • Yes, that makes total sense to me. Great example, thank you. That's how I would engage with this sort of play, as well - basically, you're looking to work as an improv actor who's participating in a script that's not fully known to you, and trying to "sell" the fiction which is going on without disrupting it.

    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?)

    But then, that's just another argument for above-the-table, upfront communication about the nature of the game. Illusionist practices - and the culture of hiding or misrepresenting what roleplaying is and what the GM is doing, what I like to call the "GM Mystery Cult" - make this kind of thing so complicated sometimes.
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