A “Live-Action” Renaissance: Streaming RPGs

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It was a Friday night in 2001. Seven of us gathered around a table in Ithaca College’s campus center. We poured over books, plotting how to destroy our enemy with magic and weapons. At five minutes to midnight, a young woman opened the door. She peered at us curiously, wary of what strange sorcery she had stumbled upon. “Are you guys… studying?” she asked.

“No. We’re playing Dungeons & Dragons,” we replied.

“Oh. Okay. Well, the campus center is closing in five minutes.”

We packed up our books, dice, and pencils and moved to my apartment to continue. It was the same every week. We would shut ourselves away from the world to lose ourselves in another. Our tabletop gaming was precious to us, but it was also private. “Normal” people didn’t understand.

Jump ahead 14 years later, and something has drastically changed. Instead of always gaming behind closed doors, people are starting to stream their sessions online. It brought up so many questions in my head! Questions I had no answers to. So I did the smart thing and asked Geek & Sundry’s own Ivan Van Norman for his take on the whole thing.

Geek & Sundry: Tabletop RPGs always seemed like a very private activity among friends. Why do you think gamers are opening up to sharing their sessions?

        Photo credit: Keli Squires Taylor

Ivan Van Norman:  I personally believe that people who love to stream their RPGs sessions do it for the same reason actors love to act or poets like to recite their work: they want to share what they’ve created with others. Up until now, RPGs were very solitary sessions of people telling stories around a table, but now it can be something more. Almost every person I know who plays RPGs has loved recounting a story from one of their sessions. This is something that is happening “now” versus something that happened “then.”

Not everyone wants to, of course. Some people prefer to keep their very private stories… private. But there are those who want an opportunity to showcase the world they helped create and give their characters some visibility beyond the small audience it was originally designed for.

G&S: Why do you think people want to watch others play tabletop games over the internet?

IVN: Live performances of playing RPGs reminds me of a time in our history when people used to just sit around a fire and tell stories to help pass away the time. There wasn’t TV, or the Internet, or even puppets (unless you counted shadow puppets), but people were always entertained by the art of storytelling.

We’ve gone so far in our technology with video games, movies, and cartoons that it almost feels natural to have a kind of “live action” renaissance of going back to basics. This isn’t theater, it’s not even wholly improv, it’s… something different. It’s like when people buy tickets to watch people read scripts live from movies at theaters. Or when people participate in 48 hour film festivals. It’s a raw, unfiltered, and real. I feel streaming RPGs is not unlike that. It doesn’t hurt that the most successful shows feature people who you already “know” in the entertainment industry. So you have the pleasure of comparing and contrasting them to what you are currently experiencing.

G&S: Where did this trend start?

IVN: I think it first started first with Podcasts. The first one I can remember is I Hit It With My Axe which was Zack Smith and a bunch of his friends–one of whom was Satine Pheonix. Not only was it unique at the time because A: most of the players were girls (not a lot of content out there showcasing RPGs at the time featured girls) and B: many of them worked in the adult entertainment industry. I remember listening to that and being humbled by their sincerity, humility, and simple joy of just playing a game with friends. Since then, it’s slowly cropped up more and more in the podcast world. Shows like Harmontown and Crit Juice started to get traction and people realized that it was fun to hear a radio drama played out in the world of RPGs.

G&S: Do you think there has been any celebrity influence?

IVN: I don’t think it ever hurts to have people with established followings and content participating in any activity. Especially if their material is similar to what people can relate to. It certainly allows for the compare and contrast element I discussed earlier. The most popular shows currently feature well known people in the entertainment industry as players. However, I don’t think it really needs it either. Having a pre-established fan base gives you an edge, but people fall in love with these characters, and more importantly, their passion and energy for the game more than anything else. Huge followings don’t make passionate and interesting people taking a fun journey together. They are just often the byproduct of it.

G&S: Do you think the personalities of the players matter? Or is the story more important?

IVN: I think they both have equal standings in the importance in a good stream. Personalities can make any dull moment more exciting, creating a love for the character that is equal to the passion of the player. But a good story is necessary in order to drive the excitement, anticipation, and reward that comes from seeing great moments happen. It’s a difficult comparison to make: we’ve all seen great movies with bad actors as well as great actors who are doing bad movies. In a storytelling medium like live streaming RPG’s, you have the players, and you have the stage.

Catch Ivan during TPK on Mondays and Game the Game on Thursdays on the  Geek & Sundry’s Twitch channel!

Feature image source: http://i.imgur.com/NWIPbqS.jpg

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