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The Resurgence of D&D and the 'Critical Role' of Online Streaming

Dungeons & Dragons: the perfect game of make-believe and improv, a medium for cooperative, long-term storytelling. 2024 will mark the game’s 50th anniversary, being created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in 1974 with its popularity skyrocketing throughout the 70s and 80s. But things haven’t always been that way.


‘The Satanic Panic’ saw D&D come under fire. It was labeled a gateway into satanism, sacrificial bloodshed, and murder in the name of the devilish and demonic alike. Mainstream news covered the subject in great detail, pushing the narrative of the game’s apparent (and overtly false) tampering of young minds. It reached a point where a television movie was commissioned entitled “Mazes and Monsters”, starring a young Tom Hanks of all people, furthering this agenda of moral corruption and mortal tragedy.


Photo by Wyrd Science (licensed under CC0 1.0 DEED)


Luckily those days are far, far behind us. Dungeons & Dragons is back in form as an established pop-culture presence. The past couple of decades have seen the game come leaps and bounds in terms of its presence in mainstream media, and rejuvenating the damage done from the days of the Satanic Panic. Many of Hollywood’s top directors, writers, and stars (Jon Favreau, Joe Manganiello, Stephen Colbert, Deborah Ann Woll, etc.) admit being avid players, with some crediting the game as playing a large part in their youths and introduction to storytelling and the stories that could be told. Television shows like ‘The Big Bang Theory’, ‘Community’, and ‘Stranger Things’ have had the gameplay a large role in their narratives, making for memorable episodes that are still loved and acknowledged years on. It is this popularity that has spurred demand for a film adaptation - ‘Honour Among Thieves’ (released in March 2023) - that honours players’ memories of playing D&D, while also making up for previous failures at film adaptations.


There are many pieces to the puzzle that resulted in D&D’s resurgence, but it would be foolish to ignore the role that an updated ruleset and the influence of online streaming had on its exponentially increased popularity. The release of the game’s 5th edition in 2014 made for a simplified ruleset, making the game accessible to a wider audience of potential players compared to previous editions and their rather “number-crunchy” playstyles and complicated rulings on certain things like “grappling.” The timing of this far more player-friendly edition of D&D and the boom in online streaming on platforms like Twitch made for the perfect conditions for the game’s popularity to blossom further. I’ll be using the renowned online D&D series ‘Critical Role’ as my prime example - it seems the most natural choice considering their popularity and success in recent years.


Critical Role, a show starring (in their words) “a bunch of nerdy-ass voice actors sitting around playing Dungeons & Dragons” started as a private home game amongst friends- a birthday present from ‘Game Master’ Matthew Mercer to one of his players, Liam O’Brien. What was meant to be a one-shot turned into a regular home campaign; that then became a live-streamed show on (their then-parent company) ‘Geek & Sundry’s’ Twitch channel. Fast-forward eight years since their start in 2015 and they have grown to become their own independent media company on their third live-streamed D&D campaign, branching out into spin-off shows, a series of novels and comic books, and other merchandise! And not to mention the fact they also now have an animated series, adapting their tabletop escapades, that broke crowdfunding records (raising $11.4 million in 45 days) before being picked up by Prime Video.



Photo by Wikimedia Commons (pictured from left to right: Travis Willingham, Marisha Ray, Taliesin Jaffe, Sam Riegel, Laura Bailey, Liam O'Brien & Matthew Mercer)


I started watching Critical Role not long after the show began in 2015, roughly a year after 5th edition was released. I’ve been a fan and avid watcher ever since and over that time I’ve made an observation that attempts to explain part of why/how the series, and therefore the game by proxy, became so popular. Their audience appeal/reach is extensive ranging from those (like some of the cast) who played D&D as kids in the 80s and 90s, living through the ‘Satanic Panic’ and its cultural aftershocks, to younger audience members who may not have played D&D before but recognised the cast for their roles in various games/cartoons they saw growing up - allowing them to then be introduced to the game as a result. It is this widespread appeal, these multiple levels of kinship that the cast and the stories they tell strike in people that have contributed to their success over the last eight years. It is the reason why they have filmed/streamed episodes in front of live audiences on occasion across the United States in sold-out theatres and convention halls, and why (for the first time) they are expanding on this formula.


On Wednesday, October 25th, 2023, Critical Role will return to the UK for the first time since 2018, bringing their first overseas live show to the OVO Arena Wembley. Tickets sold out nearly immediately, it was truly a sight to behold as I sat on my sofa, laptop at the ready, counting down the minutes until the presale went live. It was a mad dash, a panic-fuelled 10 minutes, but I managed to scrape by and secure two tickets to the show before it was too late. 12,500 fans (or “Critters”, as they are dubbed by the cast) will pack the stands and witness the phenomenon that Critical Role has become for themselves. From dining tables in their front rooms to Wembley Arena. That’s lightning in a bottle.


The growth of D&D stems beyond the number of players and amount of books/merchandise sold increasing. The game has also grown morally, especially with regards to the long-needed push for cultural sensitivity, inclusion, and diversity within the game space. Wizards of the Coast, the owners of D&D (themselves owned by Hasbro), have made an effort to push these notions forward in recent years, following increased pressure on social media by players around the world in 2020.


So far, notable events stemming from this include the publishing of the adventure anthology ‘Journeys from the Radiant Citadel’, a book containing thirteen adventures written by thirteen BIPOC authors and game designers containing elements inspired by their respective cultural backgrounds. Other instances have also seen select 5th edition books be republished - e.g. ‘Curse of Strahd’ - with the latest errata and revised cultural description of the Vistani people within the book, initially based on stereotypes surrounding Romani people. Smaller changes have also seen the writers replace the use of the word “race” within character creation with the word “lineage”, carrying this change into the newly updated rulebooks set for release in 2024.


The tabletop roleplaying game space has seen immense change in recent years, and will likely see more in the next few, with the release of D&D’s updated rulebooks, as well as the announcement from several publishers of them developing their own RPG systems. Notable names in the space like Matt Colville/MCDM developing their own game, as well as Critical Role with their ‘Illuminated Worlds’ and ‘Daggerheart’ systems, are sure to make a splash in the industry when they release. Exciting times are ahead.


 

Edited by Gio Eldred Mitre, Gaming Editor



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