How Video Saved D&D

For those new to the concept of tabletop role-playing game, learning Dungeons & Dragons can be a daunting task. From the scope of imaginary fantasy it covers to the math required to the full engagement necessary for players to enjoy it, D&D is not a casual game for casual players. And yet the popularity of D&D is on the rise. There are lots of factors that have contributed to its ascension: an aging populace of gamers embracing their childhood hobby and a new streamlined edition, to name a few. But there may be a new factor contributing to the game's popularity thanks to the Internet.



Harder Than it Looks

The rules for role-playing games can be daunting to new players because of the massive scope they cover. Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, explains in Role-Playing Mastery:

Because of the incredible scope of any RPG, the rules for a given game are usually either too short or too long. Imagine trying to describe life to another person -trying to detail twentieth-century society, in writing, in terms that will enable the reader to understand and function within that society. This may not be a horribly difficult task if you’re communicating with one of your contemporaries; his frame of reference and yours are pretty much the same before you start. But what if the reader is a seventeenth-century American colonist? The problem is further complicated by another factor. The reader might not be willing to spend much time in studying your instructions. Or, on the other hand, he just might be so interested that every word you write will be eagerly devoured. With such an analogy in mind, think of the problems that face the writers of role-game rules. Not only must they offer fun and excitement, they must describe the make-believe surroundings well enough to enable participants to understand all aspects of “life” within their milieu.


Additionally, role-playing games require additional effort on behalf of the participants. They cannot passively absorb the medium:

When another person creates a make-believe situation and simply displays it before an audience (in the form of a book or a TV show, for instance), the audience simply absorbs the creator’s imaginative output but seldom if ever has the opportunity to add its own imagination to the product. Role games, on the other hand, require participation not only in the mechanics of play but also (and to a far greater extent) in the subject matter of play. All participants actually have important and demanding creative roles in such games, and their imaginative input is increased as long-term participation evolves.


Nathaniel Hood discusses D&D's learning curve in the StarTribune:

What's astonishing about Dungeons and Dragons is the learning curve. It's easy to get started, but the game can get insanely complex. It's your job to use your best improvisational skills within the boundaries of the game. It's about asking questions, improvising, and moving within a loose framework. It creates this beautiful platform where you can play the same series of events 10 times and never have the same outcome. It's a table top game with near infinite possibilities.


Jon Peterson in Playing at the World elaborates on just how difficult it was to explain D&D to newcomers, even in the early stages of the game's evolution. Gygax penned three fictionalized events across a variety of gaming zines as a means of advertising the game:

The exploits of Nestre, Mordenkainen and Erac are all presented as short fictions that might stand alone without a game behind them, narratives that illustrate the sorts of stories that Dungeons & Dragons might imitate and produce— without relying on stories, one could very well be at a loss to characterize the game at all.


Getting newcomers to quickly understand what D&D is about us a challenge that continues today. Mike Mearls, lead designer of the current incarnation of Dungeons & Dragons, faced a similar conundrum, as described in Polygon:

...I didn’t see any RPG companies or publishers pushing an RPG game with tables set up for play in the exhibit hall. People just understand that it is too hard to teach someone those games in 15 or 30 minutes. You’re getting an experience that’s so watered down that it isn’t really helping you become a big fan of it.


The answer? Watching someone play the game. But for the many outsiders who didn't have access or opportunity to watch D&D in play, there were a lot of misconceptions along the way.

A Picture Tells a Thousand Words

Part of the mystique of D&D was its seemingly impenetrable rules system. To new players the concept can be baffling: there's no "winning," it doesn't require a board, and yet it does require a group of players getting together for hours at a time. D&D wasn't helped by the 80s Satanic Panic in the U.S., with Jack Chick's comic Dark Dungeons a particularly egregious example of misconceptions about the game. It was eventually turned into a movie (played straight).

Dark Dungeons has a surprisingly diverse gender representation. The truth was considerably less exciting however, as The Dead Alewives recorded an audio skit of the "real" dangers of D&D. This was turned into a video by Voilition, Inc., using rendered video of the characters from their game Summoner.

In early 2000 videos of D&D demonstrated that the game was considered too geeky to be taken seriously. Over time, something changed. Greg Bilsland explains:

D&D can be a game of inside jokes, twisting continuity, and periodic lulls in action—not to mention that a single game session might run for hours. Would people want to sit and watch someone else’s D&D game when they could be playing their own game or watching Netflix? As it turns out, the answer is a resounding “Yes.”


Mearls agreed in a Reddit Ask Me Anything:

I think streaming has been a huge part of D&D's success. In the past, D&D was pretty hard to explain to people. Learning the game was a bear, because you can understand all the rules but still not get how to run a game. With streaming, people can now watch first hand how great DMs run their games, how good players can contribute, and what the game actually is. It's been a huge boon.


Bilsland believes it all started at PAX Prime:

It was the Acquisitions Inc. live game at PAX Prime in 2010 that first suggested the potential for livestreaming D&D. The popularity of that game and its followup games in 2011 and 2012 made it an easy decision for the Dungeons & Dragons team to start streaming D&D games online back in July of 2013, debuting Against the Slave Lords as part of the D&D Next playtest process. The Acquisitions Inc. live games had been an audio podcast for several years, but the subsequent rise of Twitch.tv, Google Hangouts on Air, and Ustream.tv made it suddenly practical for any D&D game to go fully online.


To see how far livestreaming has come, compare the 2015 session of Acquisitions Inc. to their 2010 debut. Mearls elaborated in Polygon:

We’re kind of riding a wave of RPGs, tabletop RPGs. There’s a bit of renaissance taking place. Because we finally now have online tools. Not necessarily virtual tabletops, although those help. But just things like video chat and streaming games on Twitch and YouTube and stuff like that..I think that technology, people are really starting to figure out how to use it beyond just streaming games like Hearthstone or Dota. We see more and more people using that to stream their tabletop sessions. Then you have a group like Geek and Sundry that has their roleplay show on Thursdays. I was watching that last week. It was really cool, as a guy who works on Dungeons & Dragons, to open up my Twitch app on my iPad and see Dungeons & Dragons in the first row.


Streaming tabletop sessions is one way to get new players into the game, if only to dispel the mystery of how D&D works. As video has increased on YouTube and Twitch, D&D players have moved with it.

The Professionals Take Over

It wasn't long before professional and semi-professionals took to portraying D&D sessions. My buddy Ivan Van Norman, who was an awesome role-playing gamer/contestant in King of the Geeks, launched the Saving Throw YouTube series. It explains in basic terms how to play Pathfinder:

Saving Throw began its life as an idea between Dom Zook, Tyler Rhoades, and Ben Dunn. The general concept was to teach role-playing games in a dynamic and fun way, in order to draw more people into the hobby and engage the fans. The three men were playing in an AD&D 2nd edition game where Dunn was the newbie and Zook and Rhoades were attempting to teach him the concepts of the game. They agreed that it was much easier to watch someone play while explaining the rules than to just try to read a manual. Zook had commented on how, after nearly 20 years away from the game, he had to re-educate himself and took to the internet. There he was struck with how many "How To" shows were dry, talking head style affairs.


There's plenty of other professional videos too, ranging from action hero Vin Diesel's own D&D session to Titansgrave run by geek actor Wil Wheaton on Geek & Sundry, and a wide range of folks in-between. Charity events in which 24 hours of gaming take place on Twitch are increasingly common, with both Paizo Publishing and Wizards of the Coast hosting sessions to support the children's charity, Extra Life. Speaking of WOTC, Dungeons & Dragons has its own Twitch channel. Peter Adkison, former CEO of Wizards of the Coast, believes this is more than a passing fad:

I love roleplaying games but I’ve always wondered if there was a way to make roleplaying experiences less ephemeral. We have these magical moments, but the descriptions of our sessions to others are not nearly as engaging as the experiences themselves. A group of us gets together and we create awesome characters and stories, but when we try and share that excitement the sharing is never as exciting as the experience itself. These magical moments can be reminisced with the other participants, and often are for years and years, but there’s no way to really share capture the excitement for someone who wasn’t there.


Adkison successfully launched his own film based off a role-playing game, The Devil Walks in Salem.

A Future Industry?

Adkison asks an interesting question on his blog: Will future role-playing games be designed to be watched?

I also wonder if roleplaying videos might inspire roleplaying game designers to consider designing roleplaying games that might be fun to watch. I enjoy asking designers, “What are the most important criteria for designing roleplaying games?” Usually they answer with something reasonable along the lines of “fun to play”, “express my art”, or “capture the feel of a movie license.” No matter the answer, I respond with, “What if the most important criteria were that the game would fun to watch?” Some Jeepform RPG’s have probably pushed the envelope in this direction the furthest, where the audience is a part of the session, and players who aren’t in a given scene join the audience to participate according to the guidelines of audience participation.


If there are role-playing games designed to be viewed as a form of interactive theater, then there will be a need for players and actors to participate. For an example of the type of role this might create, see Impure Ascetic Productions' casting call for an ongoing D&D session on Twitch and YouTube:

1.) You need to think that using a concrete system and dice to abstract real world events sounds awesome. A warrior adds +5 to hit something with his sword, and a wizard might add +1. If that seems bizarre or boring, it's probably not the thing for you. 2.) You have to like speculative fiction and fantasy. If orcs, wizards, dragons, and that sort of thing bore you, nothing here will change that. 3.) You have to be able to commit some time. The game is at its strongest when it's allowed to tell long-form stories like television, except, unlike television, no one has any idea where the story will actually go. 4.) You have to be a team player. You're gathering with four other actual humans who are giving their actual time. If you use the character as an excuse for antisocial behavior, it tends to result in real-world anger and hurt feelings. When it comes to casting something like this, I'll lean heavily toward comic actors and solid improvisers.


With a Dungeons & Dragons movie on the horizon, the possibilities are bright for more video of role-playing sessions...as long as everyone stays awake.

Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, and communicator. You can follow him at Patreon.
 
Michael Tresca

Comments

estar

Explorer
My opinion is that it is the Internet that saved tabletop roleplaying. Video streaming as you mentioned, Virtual Tabletops, PDF/Print on Demand, and Social Media/Forums. This combination makes it far easier for people to find a community, support, and players for their favorite RPGs even ones that are effectively a niche of a niche.
 
I like having videos of D&D games available, but I think this article is rather a stretch. When did video save D&D? What did it save D&D from? Acquisitions Incorporated games are great fun to watch but they were designed to get people playing 4th edition, which ultimately proved unpopular. Ivan's a great guy but I expect the impact his videos had in getting new people to play PF was negligible. Most are 3e carry-overs. I would venture that at least 95% of the people who watched it already played at least one other rpg prior.

And while Critical Role is very popular, I haven't seen any kind of numbers on how many people who have never played D&D are running out to buy the starter set because of it.

I originally got into D&D because of Baldur's Gate. Maybe it's video GAMES that saved D&D? *shrugs*
 
Last edited by a moderator:

jaycrockett

Explorer
It's interesting because I've really enjoyed some rpg podcasts like the Acquisitions Inc ones, but I just can't watch the video forms of it. Tried Titan's Grave and some others as well. I don't know if the video interferes with my imagination or what.
 

JeffB

Adventurer
Geek culture is now hip/mainstream. That is what keeps D&D around.

Once that changes, D&D tabletop will barely be a blip on the radar.
 
P

PaulofCthulhu

Guest
Why do you think it was video, rather than audio from a decade earlier?
 

Dire Bare

Adventurer
I like having videos of D&D games available, but I think this article is rather a stretch. When did video save D&D? What did it save D&D from? Acquisitions Incorporated games are great fun to watch but they were designed to get people playing 4th edition, which ultimately proved unpopular. Ivan's a great guy but I expect the impact his videos had in getting new people to play PF was negligible. Most are 3e carry-overs. I would venture that at least 95% of the people who watched it already played at least one other rpg prior.

And while Critical Role is very popular, I haven't seen any kind of numbers on how many people who have never played D&D are running out to buy the starter set because of it.

I originally got into D&D because of Baldur's Gate. Maybe it's video GAMES that saved D&D? *shrugs*
You are overthinking things a bit.

D&D has been "saved" to one degree or another at different times by different things. The advent of livestreaming D&D games on Twitch and YouTube has most definitely had an impact on the games continued resurgent popularity. Talien (OP) doesn't have numbers, you don't have numbers, I don't have numbers . . . who cares? The post isn't a research paper, but a blog article on the impact of livestreaming and other video on D&D's popularity. And by D&D I mean roleplaying in general, just like I mean Dr. Pepper when I say, "I need a coke!".

Acquisitions Inc started with D&D 4E (although I think they've moved on to 5E), Titansgrave is Green Ronin's Fantasy Age system, Saving Throw is Pathfinder, Critical Role is, ah, not sure . . . the system doesn't matter, it's the roleplaying that matters. It's not like what's happening at the table is radically different depending on what rules system is being used.
 

Dire Bare

Adventurer
It's interesting because I've really enjoyed some rpg podcasts like the Acquisitions Inc ones, but I just can't watch the video forms of it. Tried Titan's Grave and some others as well. I don't know if the video interferes with my imagination or what.
I remember when Magic tournaments were first being aired on ESPN, and I though, "Wow! This is so cool, I am totally going to watch this!" And then I did, and realized that watching others play card games is like watching paint dry for me.

I initially thought RPGs would be pretty much the same, but I've been mildly entertained by a few of the various series that have been released so far. Nothings really grabbed me and "forced" me to watch, at least not yet, but I am slowly warming up to the genre.
 
I just think "saved" is a strong word when the brand wasn't in danger. It's a boost of popularity. The last time D&D was saved was when WOTC bought it out. Had that not. happened, D&D might have not made it into the 22st century as anything other than nostalgia.

If you're going to do an article about how something saved something, I think it requires demonstrating that that something was in serious danger first.
 

talien

Community Supporter
Why do you think it was video, rather than audio from a decade earlier?
I've discussed elsewhere the value of media richness and how it can help/hinder role-playing. Audio helps role-playing -- you can use your imagination to fill in the blanks -- but it didn't necessarily demonstrate how the game was played. Mearls' point was that D&D's increased popularity was directly because it made role-playing less mysterious. The best way to see a game played is to watch a session, and thanks to video now everyone can do that easily.

In essence, the mystery that was RPG has been very clearly laid to rest in hundreds of videos, in live video streaming, and in movies inspired by gaming.
 

talien

Community Supporter
I just think "saved" is a strong word when the brand wasn't in danger. It's a boost of popularity. The last time D&D was saved was when WOTC bought it out. Had that not. happened, D&D might have not made it into the 22st century as anything other than nostalgia.

If you're going to do an article about how something saved something, I think it requires demonstrating that that something was in serious danger first.
I thought about writing "How D&D's Popularity Was Increased Thanks to Video" but it doesn't quite have the same ring to it.
 
Last edited by a moderator:

SerHogan

Villager
My opinion is that it is the Internet that saved tabletop roleplaying. Video streaming as you mentioned, Virtual Tabletops, PDF/Print on Demand, and Social Media/Forums. This combination makes it far easier for people to find a community, support, and players for their favorite RPGs even ones that are effectively a niche of a niche.
Agreed.

I'm 37 and I've been playing a weekly game for over a year now with the same guys I played with in middle school and high school. Without roll20, and sites like it, that's just not happening. I imagine the 10k plus games going on on that site and others are in very similar situations. If D&D proved unworkable online, and I'll admit it's not as fun as it is in person, it might have shrunk to a a fraction of its former popularity. Not because it's not fun but because the internet and its nearly endless number of games and distractions might very well have proved too much competition for it. I LOVED D&D as a kid but I managed to go 20 years with not playing it regularly because it was just too damned hard to get a game together as I got older.

I think most players, certainly older ones, would admit how difficult it was to find a game in the first place years ago. If you were a kid and your friends weren't into it or you had no friends :( or you were terrified of the world finding out you played ;) then you were screwed. Different but significant boundaries existed for adults. Now you can play with people around the world or with your friends across the world. Not to sound like that guy from 1995 preaching about the internet but... the internet is POWERFUL. For D&D it's been a game changer I think. Maybe I'm wrong.

As for learning the game I was taught by an adult DM. Pre-internet it was definitely a case of knowledge being passed down from DM to apprentice DM. D&D is a craft, even an art form, and it can be very hard to learn it from the books even if you do master the rules. Today you can type in a question or rule problem and find a youtube link explaining it or a thread debating it. I've never checked out a recorded or live game but it can only be a great helper, especially for a kid struggling to understand how this amazing game works. The internet is a POWERFUL D&D tool. Beats hoping Dragon Magazine happens to address it in next month's issue...

In conclusion... internet good. :cool:
 

SerHogan

Villager
1995...

My friends and I suspend our Forgotten Realms campaign because we cannot find the module "Shadowdale" and we very much want to play the Avatar Trilogy. The local comic store where I purchase RPG stuff informs me it's out of print. The local gaming store does not have it. I scour the classifieds of Dungeon and Dragon magazines for addresses to stores across the country and then write letters to them asking them if they have it. Nobody does or at least the few responses I get tell me no luck. Six months later we go to a convention (a first for us and certainly an eye opener for 15 year olds... is that woman wearing a chain mail bikini?) and find it in a vendor's old adventure rack. Celebration! We then suspend our Star Wars campaign and dive back into The Time of Troubles only to discover the adventure is awful and so were the two sequels.

2000-2016...

Go online at any time and find the adventure for purchase on ebay or some such site and have it in my hands in a couple of days.

Moral of the story... Avatar Trilogy sucked, Star Wars d6 was awesome and the internet is a powerful D&D tool.
 

Dire Bare

Adventurer
Of course there are some online videos that continue to confuse, hinder and diminish D&D's place...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j_ekugPKqFw
Nah, that's an old video. Even LARPing has come a long way, as has LARPing videos, since "LIGHTING BOLT!"

Heck, track down some European LARPing videos, especially the Eastern European or Russian ones . . . . some of that stuff is pretty frakking intense! Some of it looks like real battles . . . and that's with foamie weapons! The real steel "armored combat" leagues in the US and Europe are even more so . . . .

Back when I was in college, I looked down at the LARPers on the uni quad and would steer clear . . . today, some of those groups seem to dangerous for my frail old self!!! :)
 
P

PaulofCthulhu

Guest
Audio helps role-playing -- you can use your imagination to fill in the blanks -- but it didn't necessarily demonstrate how the game was played.
I would say it did. Tabletop roleplaying games are talking games by nature. I've seen plenty of feedback over the years where people who have never role-played have listened to audio podcasts and then understood how the games are played when they hadn't before.

The actual advantage of video is that it's easier to consume on YouTube than signing up for a podcast feed, and on YouTube people expect video.
 

talien

Community Supporter
I would say it did. Tabletop roleplaying games are talking games by nature. I've seen plenty of feedback over the years where people who have never role-played have listened to audio podcasts and then understood how the games are played when they hadn't before.

The actual advantage of video is that it's easier to consume on YouTube than signing up for a podcast feed, and on YouTube people expect video.
It's a fair point. Observing gaming in any format is better than not observing it at all, and podcasts/audio was first. So compared to not having any knowledge of it, I agree with you that it definitely was a huge leap forward.

I'm not sure what the numbers are (video vs. audio) in terms of attendance, but my guess is video is more pervasive and a little more accessible now thanks primarily to YouTube. In short, audio was first, video came later, and continued the trend of opening up RPGs to casual listeners/viewers.
 

greyauthor

Villager
My opinion is that it is the Internet that saved tabletop roleplaying. Video streaming as you mentioned, Virtual Tabletops, PDF/Print on Demand, and Social Media/Forums. This combination makes it far easier for people to find a community, support, and players for their favorite RPGs even ones that are effectively a niche of a niche.
I agree. I went more than a decade before I realized I could continue to tabletop again. How many of us *sneeze*-something year-olds have friends nearby that can play. I feel like I'm 16 again.

Also I think the success of has created a resurgence... I don't know if there is a correlation or not.
 

TerraDave

5ever
A better and inherently more popular edition probably saved D&D, or at least restored it to where it was before.

The internet, in terms of finding games, playing games, finding products, watching games, etc. certainly hasn't hurt.
 

Advertisement

Latest threads

Advertisement

Top