Tobold's Blog
Monday, April 16, 2012
Not a spectator sport

Watching other Dungeon Masters of Dungeons & Dragons in action, let's say via YouTube, to learn something from them turns out to be not so easy. First of all there are very few videos of real play sessions on offer. And then those who are of a reasonable production quality turn out to be not quite the real thing: In order to get the film to a reasonable length, combat is often shortened by using just one real monster and filling the rest up with minions that die quickly. And while you can watch some bantering between players, there is never the endless discussion on what to do next which characterizes many real games.

I will be playing D&D tonight, and we are still on the first "adventure". Maybe the group will finish it tonight, maybe they'll need another session. Which means that going through one adventure with one story and a few fights will have taken up to 20 hours of play time. Even if I had the best camera equipment in the world and had filmed that adventure, nobody would want to watch 20 hours of people sitting around a table, talking a lot, and sometimes moving some figurines around and rolling dice. But *I* was immensely entertained during these hours, and as far as I can tell, so were my players. It is just that this entertainment can't be caught on film.

In a way that is a bit like reading a book. Those of us who read the Lord of the Rings years before the movies came out probably all had some vivid images of the fellowship and their adventures in their heads, even if they read editions of the book without graphics. Our imagination is often the best graphics card. Watching a video of a guy reading a book can't possibly display the fun and entertainment happening in his head.

It is also important to point out that most people who play in a regular D&D group don't meet up *only* to play D&D. Hanging out with friends is an important part of the activity, and a lot of the exchange between the players either has nothing at all to do with the game, or is in the form of in-jokes nobody outside their circle would understand.

If I look at computer RPGs and MMORPGs, there are a lot more videos available and it is easier to get an idea what the game is about by watching. Nevertheless there is still a gap between for example the graphics and activities presented in a World of Warcraft trailer and those happening if you play WoW. Probably the trailers are meant to represent what people imagine while they play, not what they actually do while playing. I've seen some hilarious films of people playing a WoW raid where the camera showed only the player, not the screen; between the facial expressions, hammering on the keyboard, and swearing into a headset that gave an interesting image of World of Warcraft, but not one which corresponds to the mental experience of the players themselves.

Dungeons & Dragons not being a spectator sport makes it more difficult for Wizards of the Coast to promote the game. Basically you need to play D&D to understand it. I think they had a good idea of running the "D&D Encounters" every Wednesday in gaming stores, but coverage for that appears to be good only in the USA. There is no store running D&D Encounters in a 200 km radius of where I live shown on WotC's website for finding those. WotC claims that 5 million people play D&D, but I have no idea how they could possibly come up with a reasonably exact number for that. D&D can be "Free2Play" in a way, as X players playing the game together don't need X copies of the rulebooks. But then somebody might have the rulebooks but not be playing. So if the only data you have is product sales, it would be difficult to estimate number of active players from that.

I am happy that I have the opportunity to still play D&D. Computer games are nice, and often a lot more convenient than getting a regular pen & paper group together. But computer games by necessity have very strong limitations to what you can do in the game, limitations that don't exist in a pen & paper game. If you want to play a game which is only limited by the imagination of you and your friends, there is nothing better than pen & paper roleplaying games. Even if it's not much to watch.

I don't know if this has been mentioned before, but if you want to see P&P RPG in action try watching The Gamers. Try Youtube first. Sure it's scripted and such so it might not be exactly what you're looking for, but it's pretty fun to watch. :)

There's even a second part, Dorkness Rising.
Gary Gygax used to write little blurbs about what a Dungeons and Dragons session looks like. He'd give pretty vivid descriptions of what the game was supposed to look like while being played. To a beginner tabletop D&D player, watching a video won't tell them much - there's too much to describe to do it effectively in a short clip.

I agree, the only way to actually get what it feels like to play D&D is to actually play it. Yet, vivid text descriptions can help a little - Gygax's did help me when I first started playing, and furthered my interest in the game.
I've really enjoyed listening to D&D play sessions via podcast, which is somewhat like spectating. No, I wouldn't want to sit and watch a video for that long, but you actually can get a decent sense for the action and story just by listening.

There's a Penny-Arcade podcast up at wizard's official site (google PA dnd podcast), and there's also Critical Hit, a podcast from the guys at Major Spoilers, available on iTunes. Both are great, and the GMs in both podcasts do a great job explaining the rules so that non d&d players can understand.

I actually learned most of the 4th edition mechanics from the PA podcast, and found myself very competant when I attended my first Encounters session, even so far as to teach other new players.
Hmmm, sounds like a challenge!
That sounds like a long adventure!

I run a game on a Virtual Tabletop, wherein I write my own adventures and encounters within the Forgotten Realms campaign setting.

After four session of around 4 hours each, we've made our way through approximately 20-25 encounters, a bunch of story, some politicking, a bit of intrigue, etc.

Maybe it's the online setting that lets players remained focussed on the game, or the VTT removing a lot of the snags that relate to D&D mechanics.
I just want to second MagrothJ's recommendation of Gamers. I think Gamers 2 is even referred to as "the unofficial D&D movie" in some circles. It's definitely the best representation of what happens during roleplaying that I've ever seen (and funny).
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