Tobold's Blog
Monday, February 24, 2020
Raising the bar

5th edition Dungeons & Dragons is the most successful pen & paper roleplaying product ever. It not just reclaimed the crown it had lost to Pathfinder in 4E, but managed to outsell even the previous successful editions of the game. The recently announced Explorer's Guide to Wildemount went up to the #1 sales spot on Amazon for all books before it was even released. And this being the book about the campaign setting for Critical Role confirms something we already knew: Critical Role and similar productions of videos showing people playing Dungeons & Dragons are playing a significant role in the current success of D&D. It is so much easier to demonstrate how D&D is played than it is to explain, so D&D profits very much from the current video dominance on social media.

Not everybody is happy about that. There is talk about the Matt Mercer effect, with new players complaining that their DM isn't doing things like they saw on the videos. It is easy to see how the average DM would have trouble doing things like voice acting as good as, well, a professional voice actor. And the released videos are obviously edited, so they don't show the boring stuff. But is that all there is?

I am currently reading Ghosts of Saltmarsh, a setting and collection of adventures published last year by Wizards of the Coast. This contains 7 adventures, originally published from 1981 to 2005. And when I read some of the older stuff, I can't help thinking that this would be unplayable today. The first adventure, from 1981, the Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh [*SPOILER WARNING*] has 30 locations, of which only a handful actually advance the story. You could easily cut out 20 of the 30 locations, and get a better adventure. Some seems to be either pure filler, or designed to frustrate the players, like the glint of coins at the bottom of the well turning out to be 14 silver pieces, protected by poisonous snakes.

Dungeons & Dragons was first released in 1974, and I have been playing it for over 40 years. But as we didn't have videos showing us how D&D was supposed to be played, we all had to improvise. And some of the results were simply garbage, even if nostalgia has resulted in some people not realizing that. Teenage DMs who relied on just the books and some word of mouth to tell them how to run a campaign is not a surefire path to best quality, even if most people at the time still had fun. But then, there wasn't much competition in the form of roleplaying video games around at the time either.

It is clear, that to produce a D&D video for publication to a wide audience, a play style that concentrates on the story, the action, and the fun stuff, and cuts out the tediousness of searching rooms that don't contain anything of interest is preferable. But isn't the same true for everybody's home D&D campaign too? Especially as we get older and don't get together quite as often anymore to play as we did when we were teenagers, maybe we can just cut out the crap, and play a bit more like the "internet celebrity DMs".


Let’s not forget that Matt Mercer has had heaps of practice from literally -years- of weekly D&D sessions, while in full view of the public eye. That’s like the vaunted 10,000 hours to reach expert peak performance, plus plenty of motivation to “not suck” and heaps of feedback.

I do think the bar has been raised over the years with the many varied takes on codified narrative and add-on systems from other RPG systems feeding back into D&D. The idea of player bonds is now commonplace. Apocalypse World/Dungeon World and other Powered by the Apocalypse stuff really codify the concept of player moves and GM reactions to those, We’ve learned that the narration doesn’t have to be yes or no railroaded story, but “yes, but” and throw in complications and tradeoffs. All of that contributes.

Then also, one needs to have the right sort of players that are interested. Critical Role’s players all come from acting/theatre backgrounds and you can see they really enjoy the deep immersion into a character and the idea of developing story-character arcs. And they’re willing to take in-character setbacks and trust the GM. I can easily think back to some personal D&D games of old where my players were patently determined to play themselves or murder hobos - in those situations, you’re not getting Critical Role however you try, you may as well play it on the players’ level and give them what they define as a good time.
All of my AD&D (very specificaly *not* "D&D") experience comes from the early to mid 1980s, when I played one session a week, eight to twelve hours, almost every Sunday for just over five years. In that time we had a group of eight people that almost never changed. I was in my early 20s when I started playing, post-university, and I had never had the slightest interest in roleplaying games before that.

I was completely astonished to find I enjoyed it. Almost all of my friends thought it was a ludicrous and embarassing hobby (and they were almost all hardcore SF and comics fans - that's how very bad a rep roleplaying games had back then - even geeks were embarrassed by them). The group I played with, however, were all in their mid-20s and the focus of the group was always on character play and improvisation. Most of the sessions I remember best after 30-40 years involve no combat at all. Some were six hours of animated discussion leading to no progress for the characters whatsoever.

I think if I'd had the experiences people describe, with teenage DMs and hack and slash gamepaly I'd have dropped the whole thing in a couple of sessions and gone on to think of it as a pointless, self-indulgent, adolescent waste of time. If it takes professional actors and production values to demonstrate the possibillities of the form, so be it. At least it gives the less theatrically gifted a benchmark to aim for.
I've been DMing for 27 years. Started with 2nd edition and moved to 3.5, 4th and now 5th. I played in other D&D games and other rpgs too.

Our few first D&D games were Hack & Slash dungeon fest with a little story... but i was the oldest at 16 years old. Our gameplay evolved through the years, the group of players changed a bit, the Hack & Slash players left the group and were replaced by students learning acting... Suddenly it opened a new world of gameplay!

I didnt watch much internet celebrity D&D game video, i did watch a few and some interested me more than others but i still prefer to play than watch. :)

In AD&D 2e i loved Dragonlance novels and i bought the Setting. I Dmed most of the DL series of adventures and we had a lot of fun doing them BUT there was a LOT of useless rooms and place to explore.

Like you said, if i had to rerun those adventures they would need a major overhaul. I'm just thinking about "When Black Roses Bloom", the adventure with Lord Soth in Ravenloft and the size of that tower... If i'd run that in my next game i think all my players would leave the table at some point. Its just a huge location with lots of empty rooms or useless one.

It was fun running that in 2e, not so much in 5e. People change, game change and most of the time, its for the best :)

PS : Maybe you've seen it... or not, but DMDavid made some top 10 of the best adventures from all editions... and none of the Dragonlance setting made it. None! lol.

Thanks for sharing your insight on D&D and other subject!
I'd say it is more useful (in general not just in this post) to refer to the "Critical Role" effect more than just the Matt Mercer effect. Such high production values streams, or equally podcasts, live or die from the collective efforts of players *and* the DM. They are entertaining or not from the interactions between them all. I rarely watch streamed games, but I do manage to listen to a lot more podcasts. Yes, having a pro DM can make a big difference. But equally for the viewer/listener, I would argue the players have to be at a similar level for this to work.

If you have disengaged players (even one or two) then the whole table suffers, and that would be pretty noticeable on a stream. I've heard this on podcasts, where you barely hear from a player, or where one player dominates the dialogue too often, and I find myself not listening to future episodes because the dynamic was off. It's usually the player characters that endear me to a show, or make me laugh, rarely is it the DM's narration. So yes, we should expect more from publishers (no more filler adventures), and as DMs we should strive to raise the level of our games, but equally let's not forget that the players need to step up as well!
Post a Comment

<< Home
Newer›  ‹Older

  Powered by Blogger   Free Page Rank Tool