The impact of real-play shows on the resurgence of D&D

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Dungeon and Dragons is seeing a resurgence. In the last several years, we have seen an explosion in the presence of real-play podcasts and streams. Two of the most popular of these are The Adventure Zone podcast (TAZ, run by the McElroy family of My Brother, My Brother and Me fame) and the show Critical Role (CR, run by Matthew Mercer and a cast of several other well-known voice actors). The Adventure Zone is one of the most-downloaded podcasts on its host network, MaximumFun, and the pilot episode of Critical Role has over 5 million views on YouTube.

The Adventure Zone specifically has had an incredible influence on my personal perception of Dungeons and Dragons. Before I started listening, I felt that D&D was an old and outdated type of gaming. Then a friend recommended The Adventure Zone when I inquired about something to listen to while I went on a choir tour to Illinois this past May. I downloaded every episode (61, to be exact) to my phone and listened to them all in a two-week-long binge and had already restarted the series by the time I boarded the bus for the first day of tour. By the time fall semester started, I had already written the first part of a campaign and organized a group of friends who all had interest but no outlet.

Myself and another TaZ cosplayer at RICC

When I attended Rhode Island Comic Con 2017, I ran into several cosplayers and attendees who all had stories about how TAZ specifically had opened up a whole different way to play. Griffin, the DM of the show’s first season, made it clear that the rules weren’t going to matter as much. They function on the assumed rest, don’t get into pedantic rules, and let their dad cast one too many spells that a cleric doesn’t actually have. The first NPC Griffin creates is named Barry Bluejeans. From episode one, it’s clear that there is no room for elitist ideas in this campaign. But over the course of 69 episodes of a comedy podcast, Griffin and his family craft one of the most meaningful stories I’ve heard to date. The thing about TAZ, at least, that makes Dungeons and Dragons more appealing to young people, is that it re-emphasizes the story as opposed to the gameplay.

While I’m not far enough into Critical Role to speak for it personally (I’ve only made it to episode five), I’ve heard similar things in terms of the depth of storytelling. While CR does use the high fantasy names and world that is usually expected from a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, it’s not pedantic or pretentious. The cast brings the characters, and the world around them, to life. And with familiar names like Ashley Johnson and Laura Bailey sitting around the table, you can’t help but feel welcomed into this world.

There’s no sales figures that prove the cultural influence of TAZ and CR on Dungeons and Dragons, so I reached out to my Tumblr following for their personal stories, and permission to share them.

emi–rose said:

I played D&D a little bit with my partner and some of his friends but after making some TAZ-fandom friends I have a whole group to play with online and it’s great!!

crowtoed said:

I played some Vampire the Masquerade when I was in high school with a group of fellow drama club nerds. Unfortunately our DMs were obsessed with Boondock Saints and similar movies and made unlife hell for the people who didn’t want to min-max or be cold-blooded killer badass Mcgees (mainly girls and queer players). Combat rounds took hours. I remember one campaign I had no less than three characters because I kept getting killed in combat, or by the DM’s fancy because they railroaded their pet plots. I didn’t want to play tabletops after that.

Then I started watching Critical Role and The Adventure Zone (ten years later). I saw DMs who believe in roleplay and creating a story. I saw that nobody is useless in a combat situation and that a good DM will encourage creativity. Combat rounds that go quickly? Combat where the other players aren’t falling asleep while the active turnholder argues rules with the DM? SORCERY. Inspired by this, my partner and I and a few friends are going to play a 5e one-shot over Thanksgiving weekend and then launch into a longer campaign (we want to play in “seasons” so nobody becomes overpowered) if it goes well!

thatlowvice said:

I started watching Critical Role as background while building costumes for Dragon Con 2016. This led to a conversation with my gym partner who is an active D&D player, and she invited me to join her new campaign. As a result I have a group of players who are fun and forgiving of newbie questions. We regularly have to pause gameplay to explain/look up rules, but even though most of the group has been playing for YEARS they never make me or the other newbies feel bad or ignorant. We can slide from role play, to rules explaining, to weird jokes about creepy facts (there was a long form discussion about using human skin for leather), back into role playing with only the barest of hiccups.

jelloey said:

I was at a DM/GMing for begginers panel at a con not too long ago, and the line was like, REALLY big, like people were lining up maybe an hour before the panel started! I saw a TON of adventure zone cosplayers, like at least 5 taakos from where I was in line. What I thought was most interesting was the women running the panel were like, super shocked at how fast the panel filled, they said they totally werent expecting that big of a crowd at all. I just thought it was a super cool like, really tangible representation of how much taz (i personally havent listened to more than a few episodes of other real play podcasts so i cant speak for those, but) have really impacted the community I guess!

These are just a few of the comments that my post garnered, and I know many of my own personal friends who have also sought out groups or made their own because they started listening to TAZ or CR. From my own standpoint, these shows and others like them are showing people that Dungeons and Dragons (and by extension, other tabletop RPGs) can be fun again. No longer is it limited to the old stereotypes of what Dungeons and Dragons should look like. Gary Gygax’s vision has taken on a new life, and I couldn’t be happier to be a part of it.

And if you’re interested in joining or starting a group but unsure of where to start, check out the page on Geek and Sundry for a handful of helpful links to find a group in your area!

Katherine on TwitterKatherine on Youtube

Your Dungeon Master, best friend, and contributor for Obilisk.

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