Tobold's Blog
Sunday, February 07, 2021
What you see on the internet isn't regular D&D

To understand Dungeons & Dragons, or other pen & paper roleplaying games, you need to think of it as being played on two levels in parallel: There is the story level, where you tell how Thrug the barbarian chopped off the head of the orc warchief, and there is the game level, where Michael rolled a natural 20 for the attack roll of his character Thrug, followed by a large damage roll for that critical hit. Good D&D has some balance between those two levels, it's neither all rolling dice, nor all storytelling. But of course different groups will enjoy different levels of balance between the two.

If you were to gather a group of your friends and start to play D&D with them, where do you think that balance would be? Unless you and your friends happen to be actors, or your other hobby is improv theater, chances are that most people are more comfortable with chucking dice than with acting. The roleplaying you will see will be sporadic, often based on fantasy stereotypes, and frequently the decisions taken are clearly based on the personality of the player more than on the personality of the character he is playing. That is normal. Pretending to be somebody else for several hours, and keeping a different personality up, possibly with voice acting and everything, is very, very difficult. Unless you do that sort of stuff for a living.

In order to prepare for my Curse of Strahd campaign, I followed the advice to watch the first season of Dice, Camera, Action on YouTube. The DM of that, Chris Perkins, is also the lead designer of Curse of Strahd, so I had a certain expectation of watching something which is "how it is supposed to be played". But after watching a few episodes, I came to a blasphemous realization: This isn't the D&D that will be played on my table. It isn't even Dungeons & Dragons "rules as written", Chris apparently isn't actually all that firm with the intricacies of 5E rules (That's what WotC has Jeremy Crawford for). I could see several instances where he deviated from the rules, or where he changed something in the module, like replacing the type of hag in Old Bonegrinder. (Which leads to the question, if the lead designer would prefer a different monster in a location, why didn't that monster make it to the print version?)

But the even bigger difference was the players. Everybody who ever watched Dice, Camera, Action will remember Evelyn the paladin, because her player, Anna Prosser, is such an excellent actor. Evelyn is "always on", complete with fake southern accent, and over the top fake personality. Strix the sorceress is also very memorable for her roleplaying. Paultin, the constantly drunk bard, is clearly more interested in playing that role than in doing tactically useful actions in the game. The only player that remotely resembles a regular D&D player is Diath the rogue.

Having selected both the DM and the players for their acting skill, and having them play "theater of the mind" style, without a tactical map or tokens, Wizard of the Coast produced a very watchable and entertaining series of play-throughs on Twitch and YouTube. This and other series, like Critical Role, certainly succeeded to make Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition more popular and mainstream. But of course that creates a risk that people try the game for themselves and find that what they experience around the table is a far way from the streamed version.

Ultimately, even for my campaign preparation, watching less professional YouTube channels playing Curse of Strahd on Roll20 is more useful than the idealized version produced for the show of it. Real players can not only not act like professional actors, they are also less likely to enjoy a game that is so heavily balanced towards acting, and where there is no combat for several sessions. It is a good idea, as a DM, to provide opportunities for roleplaying in a campaign. But if your players don't bite, or the roleplaying ends up like so often in endless banter not related to the story, one also needs to know how to nudge the game forward, both in the story and the game aspects.


It's a loooong time since I played tabletop but although we had no professional or even amateur actors in our group and our usual D&D DM, like you, was incapable of doing accents and favored the technical side of the game, we frequently went entire sessions with almost no combat. It wasn't because we all roleplayed like crazy and stayed in character. It was because most of the group loved to talk and especially to plan.

We'd regularly spend many hours discussing in excruciating detail how we might approach something as simple as entering a building. We might make and discard half a dozen complex plans before eventually deciding on a frontal assault we could have organized in five minutes. My point is, I'm not sure you have to be any good at improv or acting to prefer the sound of your own voice to rolling dice!
I think the bigger difference is combat or non-combat focused. From what I recall, in DCA there is not a ton of combat. The players spend more time talking because they aren't stuck in the slog of battle around every turn.
Unfortunately, for the normal group, combat is the only way a group can level up, which means hours of mindless dice-rolling. If DMs could only stomach allowing players to advance based on experience instead of XP, perhaps more players would be able to focus on the talking part.
You don't need acting abilities to run Perkinslike games, its default mode in my gaming group since forever.
We don't stick to the script, improvise a lot and switch things on the fly. Our sessions are totally unentertaining to watch, but totally fun to play. And for me, trust me, DCA and Critical Role (first campaign, because second feels definitely more like performance) are exactly like something I expect at the gaming table.
People have different ideas what RPG is like. We know that since forever, its just that Your "bubble" was more combat oriented, and someone else "bubble" is more rp oriented.
Also I think that playing online support combat/tactical play better, so you see more games like this online. But that's just a wild guess of a person who would very much like to get back to offline play:-)
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