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 marketing 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.”
Vampire: The Masquerade
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.
“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
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.
“We see it as a midpoint between a Target and a core hobby store,” Schuh explains. “The thing that’s so great about Barnes and Noble is that they do carry a really wide selection. We see that they do really well with the acquisition SKUs, but they also do well with the new campaign settings and things like spell cards. So clearly, they’re serving both a new audience and a pre-enfranchised audience.”
Live play and its impact on official materials
Part of the tabletop RPG rebirth is due to publishers dismantling the ivory tower. While Wizards of the Coast, White Wolf, Pathfinder publisher Paizo, and others are still the final arbiter of rules and systems, the path to what appears in print winds through the town square.
“I think the reason why the transition from fourth to fifth was so seamless was because of the two year plus playtest that was run leading up to it,” Tito explained. “That included more than 175,000 respondents over the course of it. More importantly, from this side, it was more data driven. We had surveys that would go out. Instead of just having anecdotal evidence of what people wrote down, but actually being able to quantify.”
Ultimately that resulted in a game system that left ample room for the many different shapes that Dungeons & Dragons takes at the table. Tacticians and storytellers alike had their say, and Wizards of the Coast had the fuel to power a new engine that accommodates both (and everything in between).
“I think it also came from a philosophy here at Dungeons & Dragons that we may be the publisher and the arbiter of the rules, but we realize that it is not our game,” Tito said. “It’s the players’ game. We are stewards of those players and want to make sure that every choice that we’re making is in service of those who are out there and using it as a framework to tell their stories.”
The humbleness that Tito described also gives way to an environment that is both friendly and welcoming to actual play groups. In turn, Wizards of the Coast reaped rewards from these relationships. Not only are actual play shows driving interest in specific games and the medium as a whole, but they are also having material impact on the publishing side of the business.
Critical Role and Penny Arcade’s Acquisitions, Inc. have been the inspiration for official Dungeons & Dragons game modules. It’s a challenging process that requires significant investment from both parties involved in one of these partnerships.
“After eight or so years of live games and podcasts, it really seemed like trying to bake all of that into a supplement was the right path—we thought fans would enjoy it, but also because it would give us an opportunity to really look at what we’d done,” said Penny Arcade cofounder Jerry Holkins. “We told them that’s the direction we were thinking of, a sourcebook, and when they got back to us it was with the suggestion that it be an official product.”
Holkins told us he understood there would be challenges along the way. However, he had confidence that despite being an official Dungeons & Dragons product, the Acquisitions, Inc. source book would still capture the essence and character of those campaigns.
“It’s a profound task just scheduling the work of artists and writers to fill hundreds of pages,” Holkins explained. “Ultimately, I think our producer Elyssa Grant — herself a Wizards alum — made all the difference. The content of the book, the layout, the art, all of this was done by the team we built. WotC gave suggestions, but I think if you compare our book to the products in the main line you’ll get a sense of the idiosyncratic character of a group of truly hardcore fans set loose on a once-in-a-lifetime project.”
Work with actual play groups has led to institutional change within Wizards of the Coast, also. Game companies have traditionally been sensitive about how their intellectual property is used, especially in a public setting. Nintendo, for instance, struggled with the advent of live streaming, imposing draconian rules for who was allowed to monetize “Let’s Play videos.” At Wizards of the Coast, it was no small task finding a new balance between legal protection and audience growth.
“When we started promoting the live streams of other people, those questions were asked more strenuously here,” Tito said. “’Do we own this? Are these our characters now, because we’re presenting them?’” I think it came from a version of this company that was a little bit more litigious in the past and went after any kind of infringements on their IP even before Wizards of the Coast owned it. That was baked into the ideas of how Gary Gygax and TSR handled those situations.
“I started arguing when I got here that we’re going to stifle growth if we try to fight that fight with every live play show out there. If the choice is between ‘we can play this D&D game and advertise its awesomeness to an audience’ or have a behemoth like Wizards of the Coast say, ‘no, you can’t do that’ or ‘we own your characters,’ as soon as we started to wade into those discussions, all of that potential upside we would get from people playing the game and talking about it in a public forum would evaporate. We very quickly had to adjust and encourage. It’s our philosophy to encourage all that.”
Publishers and actual play shows have created a virtuous cycle
Great design never happens in a vacuum. Consistent feedback from across a spectrum of users and an array of experience is important to refine a concept into its final product and to continue to shape it long after it ships.
When the editors, writers, designers, and playtesters at World of Darkness came together to build out the fifth edition (referred to as V5) of Vampire: The Masquerade, the team knew that they had a daunting task ahead of them. After 30 years, Vampire’s rules had become bloated and unclear. But Carl had a solution: what if the rules were refined to allow for streaming?
“When we sat down to write the ruleset for V5, we knew that we wanted to make it easier to learn, simpler to teach, faster to play, very focused on narrative and character,” Carl stressed. “… after almost 30 years, the ruleset was getting just a little complicated. I thought about how this would look on streaming. How would it play out to an audience that was watching for entertainment? How could it lend itself to something that could be considered a long-form entertainment? That helped inform the simplicity of the design. It certainly wasn’t the only factor that went into the design decisions, but it definitely played a role.”
Even though V5 was thoroughly playtested before “L.A. By Night” aired for the first time, there was no way to fully gauge how important the addition of the blood dice, which replaced the hunger pool from previous editions, would be for narrative tension. Once Carl began to lead the vampire coterie through their first moments of grappling with the everpresent vampiric beast, it was clear that the dice yielded a brilliant pivot in game mechanics.
“It wasn’t until we introduced ‘L.A. By Night’ that we understood, wow, this system is awesome,” Carl said. “It really resonates. It does exactly what we thought it would do. It introduces a risk management sub-game to the overall game. It’s a little bit like playing poker or roulette with your vampire character. It really heightens the drama.”
With three successful seasons of “L.A. By Night” under its spiked leather belt (and a fourth currently airing), World of Darkness is ready to sink its canines in the next edition of Werewolf: The Apocalypse. According to Carl, Hunters Entertainment, the company behind RPGs like Kids On Bikes and Altered Carbon, are building the new system to reflect the importance of streaming and the advent of actual play shows.
“We should be thinking about how the game would apply to streaming as well. It’s a very conscious part of the process,” Carl explained. “When we chose the new Werewolf: The Apocalypse tabletop RPG [developers], which is going to be Hunters Entertainment, we knew that we wanted a partner who understood that streaming would have to be a part of their design philosophy. We wanted a partner that would be ready to run Werewolf streams, to produce them, to run them, and share them.”
As a result of their streaming-inclusive playtesting plans, Hunters will be livestreaming their playtests for an audience. This has never been done by a TTRPG developer or publisher before Hunters and Werewolf: The Apocalypse. It adds a level of transparency that has become commonplace among video games, especially with the advent of early access.
“… the very first Werewolf tabletop RPG stream you’ll see from Hunters is actually probably part of the playtest version of the game so that the audience can get a look at how the game is evolving in real-time and comment on it in real-time,” Carl continued. “They took the idea of a playtest [and ran with it]. I suggested a playtest game, maybe a limited series, and they took it one step further and are going to incorporate streaming into the entire playtest cycle.”
Putting players at the center
The boundaries and barriers that have traditionally kept TTRPGs hidden behind an opaque divide have come tumbling down. LARP has taken on new meaning in the face of actual play. Long-form narrative is reshaping itself as an expression of both players and the audiences that accompany them on the journey ahead.
The walls between “I can’t” and “I will” are eroding quickly. More players are embracing TTRPG as a meaningful way to connect with one another, regardless of experience level. As such, publishers aren’t going to sit idly and watch as a new, and wholly organic, marketing and community building vehicle passes them by.
Wizards of the Coast, as the company fueling the most prominent TTRPG in the industry, has already seen immense success in building out their product line with post-launch content in a way that wouldn’t be possible without the partnerships they’ve crafted with creators like Penny Arcade and Critical Role. And without shows like Rivals of Waterdeep, which showcases what’s possible if publishers include more diverse voices in their pursuit for content, Wizards of the Coast wouldn’t be able to reach those communities who may be curious, but perhaps wouldn’t have felt welcomed without witnessing this kind of inclusivity.
Sales of the game, modules, and extended player content, in addition to the numbers for their actual play shows, reflects the hunger in the community: D&D fans want more stories, more connection, and more ways to play.
As Werewolf: The Apocalypse begins its journey through the dark, it will be with actual play and livestream in mind, which, according to Carl, is the entire point of evolving the brand the way that they have been. World of Darkness, White Wolf, and parent company Paradox all are active proponents in not doing things the same way they’ve always been done just for the sake of it. And while the purpose of “L.A. By Night” isn’t directly related to sales, and Paradox declined to share World of Darkness’ sales figures with us, there is wisdom in seeing a direct link between brand awareness and customer acquisition.
“I think [actual play shows are] absolutely vital,” DePass said. “I think for some people, especially in terms of representation, getting to see a show with an all-POC, some of us openly queer cast… getting to see that, and getting to see people have fun and enjoy themselves, and have good stories, and tell this together, [is important].
“In our case, or for ‘Plot Hunters’ or ‘Tales from the Mists’, it shows that you too have a place in this. There [are] still people I meet who just feel like they’ve learned D&D was X and they’ve never moved past X, but now we’re showing them that there’s a whole alphabet until you get to X, and there’s still something after X that you too can play.”
Tabletop RPGs have evolved slowly since Dungeons & Dragons became popular in the 1980s. But the surge of diverse and inclusive actual play shows has injected energy into the medium that will continue to shape publishing and play for years to come.