How tabletop RPG actual play shows are inspiring a new generation of fans — and products
In the past five years, role-playing games have evolved beyond a niche hobby, growing in popularity among players. While the tabletop industry as a whole has been growing, in large part because of crowdfunding, RPGs have leapt ahead due to the birth of actual play shows. The medium has expanded beyond its strictly participatory roots to become a form of spectator entertainment akin to improv, with tendrils that touch comedy, drama, and mystery.
Per-channel engagement numbers are closely guarded metrics, but according to StreamElements, 2019 saw an aggregated 19.5 million viewing hours across YouTube and Twitch. This represents a 1,142% increase over 2018. It also aligns with a significant uptick in sales of new player products according to Dungeons & Dragons publisher Wizards of the Coast.
Unlike other tabletop experiences, which often provide concrete rules for even the most unlikely of situations, roleplaying is a loosely scripted, intimate experience. It gives players the room to sink into another persona, whether that’s to hunt monsters or solve a murder through investigation and interrocation.
It’s that space between the rules that has spawned a form of roleplaying that transcends the traditionally cloistered dining room table to become a theatrical stage. Tabletop RPGs (and all board games) have traditionally suffered from a variety of accessibility challenges. Scheduling woes abound—ask any tabletop RPG group how hard it is to find an agreeable time for four or six people and you’ll be met with nervous laughter and cringes.
Geography is a constraint for assembling your party. And then you may have to content with a mismatch among player expectations. A game filled with dungeon dives and combat on a tactical map is different than an investigation that involves speaking with a number of game master-voiced NPCs.
Technology has helped some of this, of course. Skype, Discord, Tabletop Simulator, Google Wave (RIP), and Roll20 are digital solutions for an audience already sold on tabletop RPGs. What these don’t provide is an on-ramp for potential players curious about how these games work. That’s where actual play shows come in.
The movement started in 2010 with the first Acquisitions, Inc. panel/live play at PAX. But it was in 2015, when Critical Role hit the scene, that actual play shows became their own genre of entertainment. (Critical Role did not respond to requests for comment by publication.)
“It was March 2015 that Critical Role debuted on Geek & Sundry,” said Greg Tito, senior communications manager for Dungeons & Dragons at publisher Wizards of the Coast. “My involvement started at that same time. I didn’t really have a lot of context with how to work with talent in this way necessarily, but I immediately recognized that this was going to be the future. I saw the success that Acquisitions, Incorporated had in acquiring new audience members. The Critical Role audience, though it started small, ended up growing very quickly.
“It was also the time that Twitch had just been acquired by Amazon, and the entire ecosystem started to shift toward people watching other people play video games. I thought that doubling down on more tabletop live play shows would be a huge boon to the entire franchise. We started ‘Dice, Camera, Action’ in 2016, because that was a promotion for Curse of Strahd. Originally, that was going to be a short-running show drawing on YouTube popularity, as well as people who were known from other areas such as esports and things like that. That became insanely popular, I think mostly due to [Dungeons & Dragons principal story designer] Chris Perkins’ involvement from D&D. That audience got into it and every cast member brought their own [audience]. The success of that allowed us to create relationships with smaller tabletop roleplayers that were in front of an audience. The entire ecosystem began to grow from there.”
RPG publishers and actual play groups: the beginning of a beautiful friendship
Live-action roleplay (LARP) has built a strange reputation for itself over the years. The most common shared imagery is of a bunch of folks running around in the woods, beating each other up with foam weapons. While this is certainly a form of LARP, it isn’t the full scope of what roleplaying troupes can do with great RPG systems, lore, and a generous helping of theatrical flair.
Jason Carl, the brand manager at World of Darkness and the storyteller behind Geek & Sundry’s “L.A. By Night” Vampire: The Masquerade actual play show, explained that LARP and actual play streaming shows have more in common than people tend to realize.
“LARP is a kind of living MMO, a living video game experience,” Carl said during our interview. “It’s immersive, it’s very immediate, it’s very personal, and in some way, it has more in common with streaming than tabletop does. It’s performative, and there is an audience [built in]: the other players involved. It’s a very rules-light and fast-paced cinematic system. Designing for LARP has more in common with working on the streaming show than it ever had.”
- “Chicago By Night” is one of
Vampire: The Masquerade
- ‘s sourcebooks.
Prior to “L.A. By Night”, World of Darkness’ two major RPG properties, Vampire: The Masquerade and Werewolf: The Apocalypse, worked with theatrical licensors like Mind’s Eye in Florida. But as Carl discussed with us, licensing shows is still a unique, separate venture from creating an actual play show from internal resources, much as World of Darkness has done with “L.A. By Night.”
It isn’t to say that World of Darkness is the only TTRPG publisher to take notice of the need to develop internal actual play shows, instead of leaning on external creators like Critical Role and Penny Arcade. When Wizards of the Coast first approached Tanya DePass, a cast member of official Dungeons & Dragons actual play show, “Rivals of Waterdeep”, it was with this in mind. We spoke to DePass about how “Rivals of Waterdeep” (and her role as Selise Astorio) first came together.
“[Greg Tito] approached me and he’s like, ‘Hey, do you know anyone who’d be interested in being on an actual play show based in Chicago?’” DePass told us. “I guess he’d already had some conversations with part of the cast that he met [elsewhere]. ‘The idea is we’re going to show everyone can play D&D, everyone can learn. They don’t have to be someone who’s been playing since red book, first edition. They maybe have never touched a d20 in their life.’”
Tito told us that streaming and actual play has been part of his goal since he joined the company in 2015. His work with DePass and “Rivals of Waterdeep” was born from an event featuring the Waterdeep: Dragon Heist story and a desire to showcase a more diverse Dungeons & Dragons community.
Above: The “Rivals of Waterdeep” cast, from left to right: Brandon Stennis, Surena Marie, Cicero Holmes (sitting), Shareef Jackson (in hat), Tanya DePass, and Carlos Luna.
“As we were planning that, we had a bunch of creators that were people of color and other communities that you don’t necessarily associate with Dungeons & Dragons,” Tito said. “I reached out to Tanya DePass—who I knew as a strong voice in the community and was in the Chicago area—and another group of roleplayers who just put their toe into doing D&D related content, but were mostly known as improv actors and comedians. For some of them it was brand new. They had never played Dungeons & Dragons at all.”
Anecdotally, we’ve both known our share of folks who have refused to play TTRPGs for the same reasons that actual play shows are catching fire. For people who only pick up dice to play mainstream board games, having actual play shows like “Rivals of Waterdeep” removes barriers to enjoy the medium.
“That visibility that we’ve given people who felt like they didn’t belong, or getting people who tell us, ‘I’ve gone back to playing D&D because I saw your show. I found a bunch of friends. I remember that I own these guys that I haven’t touched in 10, 15 years’” DePass said, expanding on the importance of visibility. “ … If someone never messages you, if someone never contacts you, you never know the impact you’re having. That’s the really important part for me and for all of us.
“For every one person that may come up to us at a convention, or come to D&D Live and be really grateful, there [are] 100 people that may be impacted and never say a word, because they can’t come to our convention or they don’t do Twitter. They don’t have a way to reach out, but they tune in every week. They may never say a word in chat. They may listen to the podcast. That opportunity, I think, is the biggest thing, just realizing the wonderful and delightful, yet sometimes strenuous, burden [being a public persona] gives us.”
World of Darkness also saw an opportunity in actual play partnerships. “L.A. By Night” was created to give Vampire: The Masquerade and its community more visibility among a wider roleplaying audience, thanks in part to a partnership with Geek & Sundry.
The publisher isn’t interested in utilizing “L.A. By Night” to drive sales, even though the show has hit over a million impressions per season between streaming and video-on-demand. Instead, World of Darkness leans into actual play shows to spread brand awareness, continue to build a global audience with players from across a spectrum of experience (including fledgling vampires), and create positive communities that can share their experiences in safe, respectful ways.
Finding new audiences, at home and around the world
Above: The Stranger Things Boxed Set gets classic D&D branding.
The tabletop industry is moving in ways that fold in a geographically diverse audience, also. Wizards of the Coast is making sure it looks outside its established strongholds to build the community.
“We did Lucca Comics and Games [in 2019], which is like a ComicCon that takes place in the walled medieval city of Lucca, Italy,” Tito said. “It draws 200,000 plus folks from that area. It’s not just gaming. It’s very much like ComicCon and brings people from all different fandoms. The response from us officially being at Lucca last year was phenomenal. Joe Manganiello (True Blood, Magic Mike) did a live game there. We’re doing those types of events again in 2020 and making sure that the largest events we’re doing, like D&D Live, are incorporating influencers and groups from those outside areas as well. We’re hoping that growth in worldwide markets continues to rise in 2020 by bringing more of them into the fold that way.”
The effort on community building through actual play has been a success across the tabletop RPG segment. Pathfinder publisher Paizo said that actual play shows are crucial for awareness.
“Getting players to see the 100-plus products Paizo releases every year requires a lot of gamers talking about a lot of different products,” said Jim Butler, Paizo vice president of marketing and licensing. “Every podcast, show, and interview helps with that. It is much more impactful to have players talk about our products with each other. It is also more impactful to see or hear people having fun with your product than to tell people it’s fun; show, don’t tell.”
Wizards of the Coast has been able to put a finer point on the impact of actual play shows on its brand awareness and sales. While the company wasn’t willing to share its impression numbers, in 2019, live show viewership increased 49%. Of its total views, 15% are during live broadcasts (mostly represented by Twitch), with the remainder coming from video on demand on YouTube.
“That’s really a new phenomenon,” said Liz Schuh, head of Dungeons & Dragons publishing and licensing. “I’ve been working on D&D since 2000. Back then, the No. 1 way people found out about D&D was always through friends and family. That’s still way up there on the list, but it was only a couple of years ago that online popped up as one of the top ways people find out about D&D and get interested.”
That, in turn, has led to a major spike in sales for what Wizards of the Coast calls “acquisition products.” These include the starter sets, an Essentials Kit introduced in 2019, and partnership products like the Stranger Things and Rick and Morty boxed sets. Tito and Schuh both draw a straight line back to actual play shows as an on-ramp to learning the game.
“When we look at those boxed SKUs year-over-year, we saw a 300% growth over 2018,” Schuh said. “A lot of that strength comes from mass market penetration we’ve been able to achieve—Target and Amazon being some key mass market players.”
Barnes & Noble also plays a major role in Wizards of the Coast’s retail strategy. The book seller fills a gap, especially in areas where specialty shops haven’t been able to sustain themselves.
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