One of the great era-appropriate quirks of Netflix’s ‘80s-nostalgic fantasy adventure Stranger Things — which recently returned for a feverishly anticipated second season — is that the preteen geeks of Hawkins, Indiana, are obsessed with Dungeons & Dragons. The first and last times we see them in season 1, they’re playing D&D. They don’t return to their on-screen game in season 2, but they still talk about their real-life adventure as if they’re an adventuring party, right down to assigning themselves character classes. It’s part of the text of Stranger Things, but also the metatext: threading elements from D&D into the show’s narrative helped creators Matt and Ross Duffer create an addictively familiar world for fans of Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter, and other 1980s icons. Some of the series’s retro elements are outdated now, like the stand-up arcades and the giant walkie-talkies. But if the show was set in the present day, the kids might realistically still play D&D. What’s more, they’d probably watch other people play D&D on the internet.
Dungeons & Dragons, the grandaddy of role-playing games, dates back to 1974, but it’s never been more popular than it is today. According to Seattle-based game publisher and Hasbro subsidiary Wizards of the Coast, D&D had its most profitable year ever in 2016, and is on track to surpass it in 2017. A huge reason for that surge is the rise of “liveplay” or “actual play” broadcasts. Long-running campaign podcasts like Critical Hit and Nerd Poker have been building fandoms for close to a decade now, with groups of players recording their D&D campaigns for steadily growing audiences of thousands. Newer actual-play podcasts like The Adventure Zone have redefined what D&D looks like, with comedy and personality mattering as much as the campaign story itself. Increasingly, the new players who get in on the act are also streaming and recording video of their sessions, so fans can watch and interact with the games as well as listen to them.
“Over half of the new people who started playing Fifth Edition [the game’s most recent update, launched in 2014] got into D&D through watching people play online,” says Nathan Stewart, senior director of Dungeons & Dragons. For many gamers, live-streamed tabletop games have become appointment viewing on par with scripted geek-bait like Stranger Things. In recent years, Dungeons & Dragons and other RPGs have become a mainstay on live-streamed video platforms, resulting in a glut of programming not so different from the television’s Peak TV predicament.
According to Matthew Mercer, a voice actor who has become one of the stars of the this scene, thanks to his gig as the dungeon master for the massively popular liveplay series Critical Role, “Role-playing games are just an organic improvised space for storytelling.”
Add in the interactivity of a live stream — which typically allows viewers to comment, pose questions, and even affect the course of gameplay — and you get a uniquely addictive viewing experience: part game show, part talk show, part fantasy-adventure serial. “The people who watch the show are instrumental in helping us create the show,” says Anna Prosser Robinson, lead producer for Twitch Studios, founder of the women-focused gaming network Misscliks, and on-screen personality in liveplay shows including Dice, Camera, Action. Prosser Robinson, who got her start in the e-sports world, calls liveplay RPGs a truly collaborative way of storytelling: “People want to be part of telling a story together.”
It’s also common for gamers who get hooked on these series to begin broadcasting RPG campaigns of their own. It’s becoming an increasingly popular outlet for aspiring performers who don’t have a clear path into traditional media. “There aren’t a lot of entertainment-based mediums, the visual or recorded mediums, that empower the audience to go off the next day and create it themselves,” Mercer says. “You can’t watch a movie or a show and the next day say, ‘I want to make that.’ You have to go to school.” By comparison, there’s a certain punk-rock accessibility to liveplay. It’s like that old apocryphal story that everyone who bought the first Velvet Underground album started a band of their own; people watch these shows and think, “I could do that.”
As a result, a vast ecosystem of liveplay series now populates YouTube and Twitch, the Amazon property best known as a platform for live-streamed video games. According to Stewart, the total unique hours of D&D liveplay content on Twitch have doubled every year since 2015. These are mostly grassroots productions, but Stewart says the Dungeons & Dragons team is now “aggressively” investing in the scene as well, filling its official Twitch channel with more than 50 weekly hours of liveplay programming either produced or sponsored by Wizards of the Coast. “A year ago, we probably had two shows we’d put on Twitch,” Stewart says. “Now it’s more like 20.”
The programs on D&D’s Twitch channel intentionally span locations and demographics. “We’re trying to show a pretty diverse group of people playing D&D,” Stewart says, echoing a sentiment common to Mercer and Prosser Robinson. “It’s a value of the company. We want people to feel accepted and welcome in our groups.” Thus, the docket includes such titles as Dragon Friends, “a show where a bunch of idiot Australian comedians muddle their way through a Dungeons & Dragons campaign,” and Girls Guts Glory, in which “a lot of time is spent drinking wine, eating food and catching up before we even start playing.” Stewart is hoping to eventually launch liveplay series entirely in Spanish and German as well.
Some of the shows on D&D’s channel were ongoing before Stewart and his team decided to spotlight them. “One of the things we see our role in cultivating is to show people what we’d consider the best stuff: the best DMs, the best actors, the best storytelling, the best diversity,” Stewart says. In addition to demographic diversity, curating a channel with something for everyone also means seeking out different types of gameplay: “Some people like the DMs who are tough and challenging and put them on death’s door, others who do a good job reading the table and making sure everyone has fun,” Stewart says. Still, in substance, most of these shows are similarly bare bones — little more than a window to a group of friends playing D&D together.
Such is the case with Critical Role, arguably the most popular and influential D&D liveplay series, which wrapped up an epic five-year campaign last month and will launch a brand-new storyline in January 2018. The show dates to 2015, when the staff of Felicia Day’s gaming and pop-culture website Geek & Sundry learned about a weekly D&D gathering in Los Angeles featuring a group of popular voice actors. Geek & Sundry reached out about broadcasting this two-years-deep campaign on its Twitch channel. “It wasn’t something we initially were looking to do, but we agreed,” says Mercer, whose voice work in video games such as Overwatch, Destiny 2, and Star Wars: Battlefront informs his colorful D&D narration. “From that point, Critical Role has kind of become this unexpected phenomenon.”
It really is a phenomenon. The YouTube archive of Critical Role’s first episode has accumulated more than 5 million views — this for a three-hour video almost entirely consisting of pals sitting around a table and acting out whimsical characters. Two years and 114 mammoth episodes later, their imagined adventures have spun off a comic book, an art book, and even a line of merchandise ranging from tank tops to tarot cards — all in addition to inspiring countless works of fan-generated art, music, and literature.
Critical Role’s players, already popular within geek circles for their voice acting, have become rock stars within this industry, making appearances at conventions as if they were the stars of a new Star Trek movie. And according to Mercer, this flourishing side gig has resulted in more voice-acting work for the participants, because casting directors who love the show now request them by name. “It’s created a bunch of unexpected doors in the entertainment industry,” Mercer says.
Critical Role has also given Mercer more opportunities within the world of Dungeons & Dragons. He recently published a D&D campaign guide — a new endeavor for a multi-hyphenate who claims, “I’m not a writer” — and last year, Stewart invited him to be the DM for Force Grey, another liveplay series, this one featuring TV and film actors such as Brian Posehn (a comedian and also a central player on the Nerd Poker podcast), Deborah Ann Woll (The Defenders, True Blood), and Joe Manganiello (Magic Mike, True Blood). “These are working Hollywood actors, which is a big pain to try and schedule their time,” Stewart says, “but they’ll make time for D&D.” Force Grey’s second season finale will play out on Saturday, November 18th in Brooklyn in front of a live audience.
Every actual-play series has a live audience, though. They’re just not usually in the same room as the players, which complicates the prospect of taking a show like Critical Role on tour. Mercer outlines this conundrum: either bring all your broadcasting equipment to every venue and attempt to engage both viewers in the room and those at home, or else do a tour that’s specifically for the people in the room, which then segments the community. “It’s so fresh and it’s so new that we’re still trying to figure it out ourselves,” Mercer says. “We’re trying to catch up from a business standpoint. I think you can definitely branch out [with a tour], but you’ve got to be smart about it or else you risk burning your community.”
Another notable innovation is HarmonQuest, a D&D series conceived by Community/Rick And Morty creator Dan Harmon and gamemaster Spencer Crittenden. The twist: Harmon, Crittenden, and their comedian pals play D&D in front of a studio audience, and then animators transform their adventures into cartoons. Only after their exploits are translated into imagery is the gameplay beamed into the world: originally through NBC’s short-lived subscription video service SeeSo, and more recently through AT&T’s new VRV platform.
It’s easy to imagine HarmonQuest spawning a whole subgenre of animated liveplay shows. On the other hand, some see the cartoon as a symptom of traditional media companies moving into a world they don’t understand, one in which viewers are perfectly content to watch a handful of friends having fun playing a game together. “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. He eventually “caught the design bug” and launched Paracosm Press, a small-press RPG and board game production company.
Those two pursuits collide with Dungeon Dome, a new actual-play series D’Amato funded on Kickstarter over the summer. The game crossbreeds D&D with elements from another nerdy subculture built around elaborate outlandish characters: professional wrestling. D’Amato agrees with Prosser Robinson’s assertion that “interactive media is the next step in what people want to consume,” and with Dungeon Dome, he’s created a game specifically designed for viewer interaction. In the game, teams of gladiators roam the D&D universe battling for glory. Meanwhile, viewers can use bits, a special Twitch currency, to influence the gladiator battles. “I wanted to create something that would only be able to function in terms of being a performance piece,” he explains. “Without an audience, there’s not much of a reason to do it.”
D’Amato imagines more such games will emerge in the coming years, thanks to the rise of liveplay. He already notices companies such as Fantasy Flight and Monte Cook Games inventing “new weird ways to play games.” Monte Cook’s Invisible Sun RPG, for instance, was released with a companion app that allows players to keep playing in some form even when they’re not seated at the table with friends. He also cites Dread, a horror RPG that uses a Jenga tower instead of dice, as well as “revolutionary” game concepts from people such as Emily Care Boss and Avery Alder, as examples of a gaming metamorphosis in progress.
“We’ve seen these really crazy innovative ideas that have challenged the way games work. Now we have a whole new toybox of design elements to play with,” D’Amato says. “There are infinite ways to stretch this.” In light of D’Amato’s comments, perhaps it’s too limiting to say the Stranger Things kids would probably watch other people play D&D online. Given their adventurous tendencies, maybe they’d also be among the visionary gamers turning the world of liveplay RPGs upside down.