Watching shows on Youtube is old hat, but not as old hat as tabletop role-playing games. Combining the two — watching people onscreen (online or TV) who are playing role-playing games — would seem to go a step too far in terms of our need to be entertained. At least two programs, though, are making it work.
The series "Critical Role" (which streams on Twitch before hitting Youtube) and streaming service Seeso's "HarmonQuest" center on filming groups of participants that engage in role-playing games — for "Role" the game is Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), while "HarmonQuest" uses Pathfinder. The fact that these shows can average hundreds of thousands of views is probably lost on those who don't regularly watch TV online (re: older viewers). Exclusive programming such as "Orange Is the New Black," "The Mindy Project" and "Transparent" have normalized watching shows online, but outside of major streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, it's still a niche audience.
But it you want to talk niche, add "role-playing gamers" to your viewer description. There is a long-held stigma attached to D&D gamers, and though newer favorites like "Settlers of Catan" have grown more popular (in part thanks to an appearance on the NBC comedy "Parks and Recreation"), there is still an arm's-length attitude toward adults who partake in such games.
"Society in general has taught for many generations that when you reach a certain age, you have to learn to stop playing," says Matthew Mercer, a voice actor who is also the dungeon master for "Critical Role."
"I think that's so counterintuitive and in many ways unhealthy. I think play is therapeutic and as important as many other aspects of your adult life."
Neither show was initially planned for online viewers. Felicia Day, head of the nerd-centric YouTube channel and production company Geek & Sundry, came to Mercer, who already had a Dungeons & Dragons group, and asked him to let the company film their games. "HarmonQuest" began as part of "Community" creator Dan Harmon's HarmonTown podcast. The programs connect through a general love of verbal storytelling and the unknown. But there are some differences.
"Critical Role" is bare bones. Mercer guides the narrative action as dungeon master, and a group of players (the core being Marisha Ray, Liam O'Brien, Taliesin Jaffe, Laura Bailey, Travis Willingham, Sam Riegel and Ashley Johnson) sit at a table and play out scenarios — sometimes for more than four hours. These particular players are all voice actors, though they don't act out the game in vocal character the whole time — questions, asides and laughs enter in. Guest members like Felicia Day and Vin Diesel (on a cool mini quest) can make the gatherings more interesting, but for the role-playing faithful, there doesn't need to be a whole lot of production value in old-fashioned storytelling.
"In the first 20 minutes, I knew I would be playing D&D for the rest of my life. I saw how committed everybody was to the characters that they created, and the worlds that Matt created," says Johnson. "I think, as an adult, you really don't get that time anymore to live for hours in your imagination. There's something really magical and special about being able to do that."
"HarmonQuest" goes the opposite route in terms of a finished product. The show makes its ventures a lot less time-consuming and ups the watchability quotient by throwing in animated segments in digestible half-hour episodes. Gamemaster Spencer Crittenden approaches the show as just that — a show. It's not just players playing the game and showing off their multi-sided dice-rolling skills.
"We specifically thought about the way things might get edited. Certainly when I was planning the game, I tried to make a bunch of different visual things," said Crittenden.
"In Dungeons & Dragons, you just say everything out loud. Maybe there's a map or something, but there's not really a visual component to it, so it doesn't convey what's going on in the fantasy world. But with a cartoon, you can actually animate everything."
Even with their differences, both are still catering to an audience interested in role-playing. But you wonder who specifically is watching, especially in the case of "Critical Role's" multi-hour games?
"I think those longform, full-play D&D podcasts appeal to people that are really into the hobby and can't get enough of it," says Crittenden. "Part of the conceit of 'HarmonQuest' was that it will appeal to a casual audience who really doesn't know much about role-playing games."
Mercer has a theory, though, about who and why people are watching during this recent surge in popularity of board games and role-playing games.
"A lot of gaming and a lot of interaction is no longer physical, it's all digital and at a distance. There's this innate, tribal need of the people to have face time with other people and play together in person," he said. "I think there's been this rediscovery of the joy of playing with people around the table … or getting together with your friends and crafting a story narrative and having an improv together which is an experience that a lot of these kids are just now discovering because of shows like 'Critical Role' and role play and the Internet's sudden appreciation of that."
That's something that trolls, elves and spellcasters alike can probably agree on.