Sunday, November 15, 2020

D&D and Me: Part 8 (Resurgence of the Game)

[This is the eighth post in a new series.  You may want to begin at the beginning.  Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]

[Last time, I talked about playing with my children in the long years between D&D 3e and its newest edition: 5e.]

Dungeons and Dragons is currently undergoing an explosion of popularity that, to many of us old-school D&D nerds, is nigh on incomprehensible.  There are many competing theories on why that is, but (as befits a believer in balance and paradox) I naturally believe that they’re all true at once.  That is, it’s not any one reason, but rather the confluence of all the factors that are fortuitously aligning right now.  And there’s a whole of reasons that people are putting out there, but I think we can discard some of the minor ones, and group all the rest into 3 broad categories.

When D&D was fresh and new, parents didn’t understand it, so they did what parents do with everything that their children start to become obsessed with: they blamed it for all their kids’ troubles.  Before it was D&D, it was heavy metal music, and before that it was television, and before that it was rock-and-roll, and before that it was comic books, and before that it was cars and motorcycles, and before that it was books.  After D&D’s time under the magnifying glass was done, parents moved on to blaming videogames and then just screens in general.  Of course most of us are smart enough to know that eventually there will come a time when parents will beg their kids to spend time with screens, just like we now beg our children to spend more time with the same books that our however-many-great-grandparents were told to “put that down and get your butt outside to play!” Much is made of the period of D&D history that, in retrospect, we refer to as “the Satanic Panic,” but honestly it was no different from anything else kids get obsessed with.

But the main thing to note here is that, while the parents were decrying the game and claiming it was a gateway to real witchcraft and demon worship, their kids were loving it, and finding that it opened the doorways into more imaginative worlds than anything else they’d experienced before.  And while perhaps only a small percentage of those children would grow up to become authors, and movie makers, and television show creators, enough kids were playing D&D that even a small percentage was significant.  Big reason #1 why D&D is enjoying this amazing resurgence of popularity right now is simply that right now is when the generation raised on D&D is hitting its creative peak.  They are producing The Big Bang Theory and Community and The Dresden Files and, most significantly, Stranger Things.  Even in shows where D&D just gets a casual mention (say, iZombie, where one episode has detective Babineaux going undercover into a D&D group to solve a murder, hating every second of being immersed in “this nerd shit”), these days that mention is almost always positive (e.g. Babineaux eventually finds himself addicted to the game and ends up playing it in several later episodes).  Major celebrities (like Vin Diesel and Stephen Colbert) have come out as fans, while some slightly lesser known folks (like Deborah Ann Woll and Matthew Lillard) are out-and-out starting to refocus their careers onto D&D playing and/or merchandising.  And this happened fairly quickly: less than 20 years ago, “playing D&D” was included on lists in women’s magazines of things to watch out for in a prospective mate.  But, over the past decade, D&D has begun to instill a measure of nerd cred that is hard to come by otherwise, and being a nerd—of any gender—is suddenly cool.  Why?  Primarily because the media portrayals of nerd-dom have changed, and that’s primarily because the nerds are now in charge of those media portrayals.

But let’s not overlook the impact of D&D 5e either.  4e was a failure: although neither Wizards of the Coast (owners of D&D) nor their parent company Hasbro, nor Paizo (publishers of Pathfinder) ever officially released sales numbers, it was an open secret, going by sales numbers that could be tracked (e.g. on Amazon) that Pathfinder was eating 4e’s lunch.  For the first time, even if only briefly, D&D was not the best selling TTRPG.  And Wizards knew it, and they knew they had to fix it, and they were not shy about it.  They completely stole Paizo’s idea of having a public playtest, and they set out to research what were the best parts of all the previous editions so they could Frankenstein them into one game.  Critics will say they succeeded, producing what many refer to “everyone’s second favorite edition of D&D.” But fans, on the other hand, will say they succeeded: D&D 5e is “just the best bits” from all the other editions (yes, even 4e), with all the annoying crap left behind.

Now, mostly when people talk about this, they’re talking about the rules.  And, sure: every edition has had some good rules, and plenty of stinkers, and having a ruleset that is only the best bits is pretty frigging awesome.  But there’s way more than just rules going on here.  First off, 4e was the first time that anyone producing a new D&D had tried to appeal to non-RPG players.  See, 2e was for all the people who liked 1e but thought it could be better, and 3e was for all the people who liked 2e but thought it could be better.  But producing a product that appeals only that subsegment of your market that thinks your product could use some improvement will, by defintion, produce a smaller and smaller market segment for each edition.  At some point you gotta figure out how to bring in new players.  3e tried to do that, a little, by using the Open Gaming License to get all the former competitors to D&D to make content for D&D, and that worked, a bit.  4e tried to do it by incorporating many of the lessons that MMORPGs such as World of Warcraftwho, let’s be honest, pretty much owed their existence to D&D in the first place—were innovating on, such as roles within the party (tank, striker, controller, leader), balancing factors such as DPS1 and healing, etc.  This was far bolder, but it had significant downsides: the existing players who didn’t care for MMORPGs certainly weren’t attracted, and D&D was never going to be a better MMORPG than an actual MMORPG, so even the MMORPG fans were limited in their enthusiasm.  But 5e took a different approach: stop trying to make D&D something different ... just make it friggin’ easier to learn.  The biggest barrier to starting to play D&D is not what the game is: what the game is is a fantasy world where you are the hero and you can do (or at least attempt) any action you can imagine.  That pretty much sells itself.  No, the barrier to starting to play D&D is the baroque ruleset.  Oh, sure: it’s complex for very good reasons—it’s attempting to model all of a reality, and it’s a reality that has to include magic and dragons and all sorts of stuff physics can just ignore—but the D&D newbie doesn’t care about all that.  They just care that trying to figure out how to play this stupid game involves reading hundreds of pages of rules and more math than they’ve had to deal with since high school.  5e made all that much simpler.  Now, don’t get me wrong: 5e is not a simple game, by any means ... compared to sitting down to learn the rules of Sorry! or even Monopoly, D&D requires way more mental load.  But it’s much simpler than ever before, and that’s significant.

And one more really important thing about the new edition of D&D: for the first time, there was an openly gay man in the lead designer spot.  And, in my opinion, that’s the main reason that D&D has become so much more inclusive.  Gone are the chainmail bikinis and outright topless female monsters.  Gone are assumptions that all PCs will be male, or even either male or female.  NPCs are protrayed as male, female, non-binary, straight, gay, trans, bi, and asexual.  Racial representation has come a long way as well, although certainly there’s still more progress to be made there.  But for the first time a new edition of D&D didn’t just welcome in straight white dudes: it welcomed everyone.

The final big reason that D&D has become a cultural phenomenon in recent years—and many would argue the most important one—is the rise of Internet streaming.  YouTube, Twitch, podcasts ... suddenly it’s easier than ever for anyone to put out some sort of media of them doing things they like and other people with similar interests can find them.  More importantly, people can now discover new interests by watching or listening to things online.  This has led to an explosion of all sorts of things: my little girl doesn’t dig the idea of wearing make-up because anyone in her family taught her about make-up: she’s fascinated by it because she watches make-up tutorials on YouTube.  Do you want to watch videos of people making up weird dances?  You can do that.  Do you want to watch videos of people making bad “puppet” shows by just moving their stuffed animals around and making them talk?  No problem.  And, if you want to watch videos of people playing games, you have an amazing plethora of choices.

Now, I have to admit that I’ve always felt that watching other people have fun playing games was kind of stupid.  Why would I watch someone play a videogame, let’s say, when I could just play the damned game myself?  But of course, by that logic, the entire sports industry becomes meaningless: there’s literally a multi-billion-dollar business in having people play games so other people will watch them.  But I think the sports analogy is actually kind of instructive here: sure, watching an NBA game can be pretty damned exciting, but that doesn’t mean that watching any random game of people playing basketball will be fun.  There are many factors to consider: the talent of the players, the production value of the presentation, the knowledge of the commentators, and so on.  And so, eventually, I came to realize that I didn’t actually not like watching all people play videogames, I just didn’t like watching most people play videogames.  And the person who changed it all for me was Jacksepticeye.  I happened to wander through the room when one of my kids was watching him play ... hell, I don’t even remember what game it was, but the guy was hilarious.  He wasn’t trying to make me love the game, he wasn’t trying to make fun of the game, he wasn’t trying to do some artsy or clever commentary on the game: he was just playing the game, and having fun, and being damned entertaining while doing it.  Since then, I’ve found a few other “let’s play”2 YouTubers who are pretty good, though I suspect Jacksepticeye may still be the best.

And, at some point, it naturally occurred to me that, if I could enjoy watching someone else play a videogame, when I don’t even like videogames all that much, surely I could enjoy watching someone play D&D, which I absolutely adore.  And, as it happens, there are a lot of choices out there, just like there are a lot of choices for the videogame genre.  In fact, the whole streaming thing (both for D&D and every other topic) has a major downside of making it so easy for people to create content that, at this point, it can very difficult to pick out the gems from all the dross.  But there really are some gems out there, let me tell you.  For best all around video production plus some amazing acting, I think the prize has to go to Relics and Rarities; if you prefer your streaming in podcast form, it’s really tough to beat the OG Adventure Zone.  But of course the elephant in the room is Critical Role.

If you’re not familiar with Crtical Role, it’s a bit difficult to describe just how big it is.  It’s natural for us to think that, if we’ve never heard of a thing before, it can’t be but so big ... right?  Let me see if I can illustrate why you’re wrong about that with 2 little anecdotes.

D&D has become so popular lately that it’s very common for the D&D Player’s Handbook3 to be Amazon’s #1 best seller in not only the “fantay roleplaying books” category, but even in the entire “fantasy books” category, at least for short stints.  And this has happened several times through the past few years.  Well, just before the pandemic really got under way this year, the D&D folks and the Critical Role folks got together to produce what’s called a “campaign setting” for the current season of Critical Role.4  For some period of time earlier this year, the Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount was not the best selling book in fantasy roleplaying, nor even the best selling book in fantasy: it was the best selling book on all of Amazon.  Period.  Before it was even released.  How can that be, you wonder?  How can there be more people buying Critical Role D&D books than buying D&D itself?  Because Critial Role has gained an appeal far beyond just D&D players, and even far beyond just this country.  The CR cast members have done conventions, with or without live shows, in LA, New York, Chicago, Indianapolis, Austin, San Diego, the UK, Australia, Sweden, and many more, and everywhere they go, they draw a huge crowd.

Okay, last little Critical Role story.  The first season of Critical Role ended when everyone’s character got all the way to 20th level; they’d been playing for about 5 years at that point (the last half of that online) and were ready to start over with new characters.  But they thought they still had more stories to tell about their original characters: after all, what about those first 2½ years before the stream started?  Surely fans would love to hear some of those stories.  Since the CR cast is composed entirely of professional voice actors, it only seemed natural to do it in animated form: they’d hire an animation studio, voice all their own characters, maybe hire some of their other voice actor friends to chip in too ... it would be amazing.  But no studio was interested in such a thing: make a show out of your home D&D game?  Crazy talk!  So CR did what all creators in that situation do these days: they went to Kickstarter.  Just to fund a one hour special, they figured they needed $750K—animaition is expensive!—and they figured it was a big ask, but, hey: if things went well, maybe they could do a sequel.  So they notified all their fans to be ready and they put up a 45-day Kickstarter campaign to raise ¾ of a million dollars.  They hit their goal in under 45 minutes.  They blew through every stretch goal they’d thought of ahead of time in the first 24 hours.  The one-shot special turned into a 12-episode series, which would eventually be picked up by Amazon and is already greenlit for season 2.  Because, you see, by the time the 45 days were over, they had raised over eleven million dollars, making them then (and still, I believe) the highest-grossing campgaign in Kickstarter history for the entertainment category.5  Suddenly this little D&D-based company was being interviewed not just by Wired and Syfy, but by Forbes and Fortune.  This is what streaming has done for the hobby.

And all these things helped reignite my personal spark as well: I was excited to try out the new edition, I was encouraged by all the new postive media portrayals, and I got really sucked in to a number of these streaming D&D shows, including all the ones I mentioned above, plus several others.  They’re not all great, by any means, but the ones that are great are just astounding.  I have always believed that roleplaying is storytelling, and here’s a huge crop of people playing a new edition of the game who all believe it too ... and better yet, are using the hobby as a brand new medium to tell some exciting new stories.

Next time we’ll examine the origins and inspirations of the Family Campaign, which will take us right up to the present day.


1 That’s “damage per second,” if you don’t speak MMORPG.

2 For some reason, videos where you watch other people play games, especially videogames, are called “let’s play” videos.  Still not sure what the origin of this curious phrase is.

3 That’s the most important rulebook—the one that every player needs.  Most of the other books only the DM needs.

4 A campaign setting is a description of a fantasy world so that you can set your D&D games in that world.  Most D&D campaign settings are worlds original to D&D, but it’s not unheard of to take an existing property and turn it into a D&D setting.  For instance, Lankhmar.

5 Which record they took from the MST3K reboot, who in turn took it from the Veronica Mars movie.

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