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D&D 5E What is up with the popularity of watching other D&D groups play the game?


Magic Wordsmith
Side story - I am working on preparing to run Hot Springs Island in a couple months for my regular johns. So I was looking on YouTube for some actual plays and found one that had like 30-minute episodes. I was like, great, these are edited then, so I'll get the highlights of the content, particularly as it related to the play procedures for the hex crawl.

They were mildly amusing and got a few chuckles out of me here and there so I stuck with it, but what I found particularly funny was how even the edited version of the game was crammed full of tangents about Star Wars and all sorts of things unrelated to the game. I could wring maybe 5 to 10 minutes of useful actual play out of each episode. I was left to wonder how long the entire play session was because it was very unproductive in terms of getting through actual content.

I find this to be the case with many actual plays, too. They just don't seem to Get Stuff Done. In our regular sessions we run laps around these games. I'm not exactly sure why they run so slowly. I think it has a lot to do with players being unmotivated to push things forward on their own or thinking that Getting Stuff Done is not compatible with the sort of back and forth talk that they put on between their characters. Hard to say. If they picked up the pace a bit more, I might be more inclined to tune in.

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Dr Magister

I really enjoy Critical Role, and I've watched almost every episode. Because they're all professional voice actors, it ends up feeling as much like an epic fantasy radio play as watching a D&D game. It also helped get me into 5e (although I've been playing TTRPGs for years), and I've deliberately adopted a couple of things Matt Mercer does as a DM, which I thought were particularly good.

I will also say that in some ways I miss their early days, when the battlemaps were hand-drawn on graph paper. It felt more like watching a group of friends playing D&D than the much more polished production it now is.

As to why others watch it, why do so many people watch sports instead of going out and playing for themselves?


In some ways you could argue why watch sports other than to watch people doing something you could be doing as well.

I think watching other people roleplay can help your own RPG skills or at least look for other options.
I usually don't find it interesting enough but then I wouldn't have expected twitch gaming streams to be popular either.

Do what thou wilt as long as it doesn't hurt anyone.


New Publisher
Not that I keep up with it, but I do listen to Critical Role now and then when I'm exercising, especially when biking. I find it entertaining and it's always interesting to see how people approach the game differently than I do. I don't want to listen to anything too serious when I exercise and if I zone out for a few minutes it doesn't really matter.

Besides, whether playing or DMing, aren't you listening to other people's stories most of the time? I mean, yes, you're involved in the story, but so are a bunch of other people. Guess I don't see that much different.

So it's just cheap entertainment that I can put in my ear buds and listen without it being too distracting or requiring a lot of thought.
Ok, this is a great idea. I should do this while riding the stationary bike!


Friendship is Magic, and Magic is Heresy.
Not too different than watching other people play videogames... or sports.

Seems much less fun than playing them yourself to me, but it does sidestep the problem of assembling a group to do so.


I really tried to get into that kind of stuff (particularly the Power Rangers Hyperforce game) but after nearly an hour of the first episode I just couldn't keep up. I had trouble keeping a lot of stuff straight in my head and keeping an image of what was going on... and I also didn't get the appeal of Twitch stream chats, considering they move too fast to get ANY sort of conversation done...

Wish I could get into it.
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I like to watch Skyrim Let's Plays. Its kind of like watching a TV show for me.

As for the D&D plays? I don't know but I think its aspirational for younger gamers. The idea there being "Wow, someday I can have a game as cool as Matt Mercer's."

Frankly the hobby has always been more "I cast magic missile at the darkness. Where's the Cheetos?' than Critical Role in my experience but YMMV of course. In any case I've made friends, had fun and that is all that counts.

If watching these thinsg will a realistic eye (no you probably aren't as good as a professional actor) helps people enjoy D&D more. Its all good.

Dr Magister

It's Critical Role specific, but here's one person's answer, and she starts by saying that the idea of watching someone else playing D&D sounded about as fun as watching paint dry:



As you say, people watch golf matches. Different people enjoy different things, and a lot of people like watching stuff like Critical Role.
Yet I think the OP's confusion is not quite that--wondering how people could watch something that they're not interested in. He obviously loves D&D, but just doesn't like watching it. My guess is that the majority of people who love golf also like to watch it. Of course there are people who love to play golf but not watch it, and I suppose he fits into that category with D&D.

As for the OP, I think it comes down to a kind of learned familiarity, not unlike watching your favorite sitcom or Youtube channel. Turning it on is like coming "home," which the show Cheers kind of iconically characterized with the famous "Norm!!!" If you're a fan of Cheers, you kind of--at least sub-consciously--feel like you're one of the barflies, "part of the gang."

I also don't like watching CR or other D&D sessions, but there are TV shows and Youtube channels that I like to watch, and part of it is the familiarity. In some cases, I just like to have it on in the background as I'm making dinner. I think a lot of long-form Youtube and Podcast stuff is watched/listened to in that manner.

Tom Bagwell

Several reasons. Sometimes I'll watch them to see how a game that I'm not familiar with runs during actual play and to get a feel for the mechanics. Sometimes it's to watch the GM and see how he handles different situations to see if I can learn something. (I've GMed for over 30 years, but I still learn things.)

For instance, it was Critical Role that made me decide to give D&D a try again. We'd stopped using D&D back when it was 1st edition AD&D. We moved on to Rolemaster, RuneQuest, other non-fantasy games, etc. Recently I've been running Shadows of Esteren.

I'd dip my toe in every so often. A session of AD&D 2e here, a Pathfinder or D&D 4e game there, etc. Didn't like it at all. Too complex, too gamey, etc. I watched a few sessions of Critical Role...and the game didn't seem to be nearly as overly complex as my last (4e) experience. The things I'd disliked seemed to be missing.

That prompted me to pick up the 5e Players Handbook...and most of the issues I've had with D&D since 1e had been addressed. I liked what I saw. The result is that I'll be re-starting my fantasy campaign with 5e in a few weeks. Because I decided to watch someone else run a game.

Li Shenron

I'm with the OP. I've tried to watch a few episodes of Critical Role and Sirens of the Realms, mostly to learn something useful for DMing, but the interesting bits are too sparse, and I can't stand watching for long hours just to catch those bits.

To be honest, I also have lost interest in watching sports a very long time ago. I find most sports tedious and repetitive, with the exception of football (the real one that actually uses feet i.e. "soccer") and ice hockey which have more variety in scoring actions, and less frequency of them. But I watch even those very rarely, mainly only if the national team is playing.

Despite actually liking various kinds of videogames, I always had zero interest in watching e-sports. For me they represent an abysmal form of entertainment.

I do like watching musical concerts and theatre plays, movies/fiction and documentaries or lectures, so it's not like I'm nobody's public...

People watch improv groups. People watch scripted fantasy shows. People watch behind the scenes featurettes about the making of movies or tv they like. People watch reality tv. Some strange people even watch people (who are not even their children or anything) play various ball games. Watching people play D&D tends to be like some combination of all these elements (different offerings have different mixes of it all and will appeal to different people). And the nature of most of these entertainments is that once you become invested in characters, story, and/or personas involved you keep watching.

For me there is also a convenience aspect. Watching online is a D&D experience available at my convenience. No need to find people or work with their schedules, no need to commit your own schedule every third Tuesday evening of the month or whatever. Last night I came home from a session of actual play still in a D&D headspace and so I watched the next episode of Critical Role.


Hobbit on Quest
Personally, I’m not that into Critical Role - I’ve watched a fair bit of it, and I enjoy parts of it, but it just doesn’t hold my attention for the 3-4 hours an episode goes on for. But I absolutely love The Adventure Zone. It helps that it’s edited, unlike Critical Role, so there’s much less sitting through the meta-discussion.
I actually prefer the presence of the meta-discussion - particularly as it results to the game itself, how things work, etc and I don't mind short tangents into other things going on and in-jokes. All of those ground it in the realm of games as people sit around playing them. They may be a bit more thespian-ish and focused than some game tables, their DM may have better resources for miniatures and terrain than most, but they still tell goofy in-jokes, swear, have personality quirks about dice, and tease each other like most other game groups I know.

I don't have the time and inclination to sit down to watch a four-hour stream, but will listen to actual play podcasts and videos if they're in the 30-60 minute range. For my part, I think that they can be a great tool for learning how to be a better DM. Seeing what other people do at the gaming table is a great way to improve, to grow. Same also goes for being a player, really.


Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
Well, there's a vast audience for people watching other hobbies, such as sports. Even if you can play your sport of choice (don't want to start any religious wars which is better), watching high skilled people do it can be entertaining. And that's before getting emotionally involved in what's going on.

But I'm with you. I don't personally find them entertaining. But my kids, who consume a lot more youtube that TV and watch people play computer games that they own and could be playing instead of watching - they do. Perhaps it's generational to some degree. My mom still reads a newspaper, and I can't picture doing that every day myself.

I was really excited about it at first. It was fun to see a new way to play. I watched a little acquisitions incorporated.

before too long the lack of combat had me glazing over. Then with Matt Mercer’s group....I...just can’t.

I can see that it might be good for the game but I would rather play, draw my character, plan a dungeon, paint a mini, read enworld...drink beer.

some people actually like passive participation. I have a friend who would rather watch others play video games for example.

in our increasingly neurotic age (e.g. tons of social anxiety and avoidance in new cohorts of college students for example) I suspect watching might be easier and more accessible to some, which is fine.

not for me. I want to roll the bones and hoot and holler with failure and success and ham it up myself.

so I think there is some generational difference among other factors.


Goblin Queen
That's what crinkles my shorts on the whole thing, sitting there listening to inside jokes, the metagame, the banter that is meaningless to me as an observer, long dialogue that don't advance the story. It's one thing being the DM and actively listening to the players discuss stuff in the group's game, entirely a different thing to slog through the same mud in a game I'm not invested in. So I will look up and watch TAZ and see if that helps me get into watching other gamers.
Yeah, I’m with you there. I think part of the appeal of Critical Role is getting to feel like you’re in on those inside jokes and such, but you have to follow it for a while to get to that point.

TAZ is much better about that in my opinion, but it is audio-only (it’s a podcast) so that puts some people off of it. Also fair warning, the first few episodes are actually far worse for that. Two of the players are playing D&D for the first time and the other has only played once before, while the DM has a bit of experience with 4e but is running 5e for the first time. So the beginning can be really rough as they’re all kind of learning the game as they go. Fortunately it gets better pretty quickly, so if you can push through that rough start, you should be in good shape.


Goblin Queen
I actually prefer the presence of the meta-discussion - particularly as it results to the game itself, how things work, etc and I don't mind short tangents into other things going on and in-jokes. All of those ground it in the realm of games as people sit around playing them. They may be a bit more thespian-ish and focused than some game tables, their DM may have better resources for miniatures and terrain than most, but they still tell goofy in-jokes, swear, have personality quirks about dice, and tease each other like most other game groups I know.
Yeah, I think a certain amount of that is what makes it an Actual Play instead of just a radio drama. But Critical Role has a bit too much of it for my taste, whereas TAZ strikes a better balance for me personally. Part of that is the editing, and part of it is the smaller group. With only three players and a DM the table talk doesn’t get nearly as distracting for me as it does with six players and a DM.

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