When I was about 9 or 10, my step-dad took me over to his old school buddy's house to pick up a couple of books I’d been pestering him about for some time. He’d finally gotten ahold of the only guy he knew with copies of these ancient (to me, anyway) tomes.
“Hell, we used to sit in the back of math class rolling characters all day, me and your step-dad,” said the ol’ chum after he’d introduced himself, disappearing somewhere into a back room as he trailed off. “How he ended up becoming a math teacher still escapes me.”
“You remember that bastard sword I had that was cursed and could talk?” shouts my step-dad after him, looking at me with a sideways glance, seemingly to gauge my reaction.
I’m not sure what I looked like then, but I remember how I felt, as my step-dad’s friend re-appeared suddenly, slamming down on the table a stack of books three-high.
“I’ll never forget it,” he replied with a grin.
The books that I borrowed that day were titled Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual, and Dungeons Master’s Guide, all published by Wizards of the Coast as part of the 3.5 iteration of Dungeons & Dragons. I wish I could say that what followed were months of role-playing and tabletop shenanigans between me and my friends, but, unfortunately, that’s not the case. It would take another six years before I’d ever play an actual game of D&D, and another 10 after that before I would begin to play regularly.
Catapulted to "Cool" by Liveplay Crews
Back in 1999 and 2000, D&D was decidedly “not cool,” at least if you were me and hung out with my friends. However, a couple of factors have reignited the popularity of tabletop gaming very recently, bringing D&D back into the popular mainstream, with 2017 being the biggest sales year yet for the history of the game.
Contributing to this rise in popularity are the improved 5e rules, which make the game easier for newcomers to play and understand, and spots in popular media such as Stranger Things and even Netflix’s Voltron reboot (S06:E03 “Monsters & Mana”). However, another element has truly catapulted D&D into the mainstream, and it’s the internet and live streaming.
“Over half of the new people who started playing Fifth Edition [the game’s most recent update, launched in 2014] got into D&D through watching people play online,” says Nathan Stewart, senior director of Dungeons & Dragons, in an article with The Verge.
I don’t have a hard time believing him, because that’s exactly how I got into playing Fifth Edition. Besides the one time I played on a debate trip in high school and the other handful of games I played in college, the period between 9-year-old me first opening up the 3.5 books and 26-year-old me finally playing D&D regularly was filled with a whole lot of creating characters and reading rules, while failing completely to find people to play with, let alone to DM a game. In that time, a lot changed, and a couple years ago I discovered Twitch streaming. Matt Mercer and the Critical Role crew became a mainstay in my household, and I quickly realized three important things:
- After about three episodes, I’d watched more D&D than I had ever played, and I wanted to change that.
- The game isn’t that hard to play at all — it just requires a lot of imagination and a little practice.
- I could simultaneously show others what D&D actually is, and how to play, by referring them to these streams.
Shortly thereafter, I recruited a couple of other friends who were interested by the re-emergence of this pop-culture phenomenon, and we’ve been playing weekly for over a year now together. Now, here’s where things get interesting.
Another love of mine, eSports (particularly concerning League of Legends and the NA LCS), takes up just as much of my time on Twitch as D&D does. The two — Liveplay RPGs and competitive eSports — have always been on two opposite ends of the spectrum in my mind. However, the simple fact that they’ve become somewhat reliant on streaming for their success ties them together in a fundamental way, and some are deciding to explore that connection further.
Competitive Dungeons & Dragons ... and an eSports Future?
For those unaware, live streaming and eSports are blazing new trails, powerfully changing the overall paradigm of sports as a whole, becoming more popular in the world of sports gambling, and fast recruiting more and more viewers every day. So while it should come as no surprise that D&D and eSports would eventually collide, I was still somewhat taken aback when I’d heard that this collision was imminent.
A new company called RPGSports has made headlines by recently announcing that they’d be holding “the first online D&D Tournament in a cooperative Party vs Party setting from EncounterRoleplay & D&DBeyond with a grand prize of $5,000,” according to their website. “Over the course of 4 weeks, 16 players will compete in teams of 4 in single elimination games. Each game is a best of 3 arena battle and played via Roll20.”
For those who play the game, it’s easy to see where disconnects might occur. For example, when I’m at the table, I like to pull my hood up, speak with an accent, and do whatever it takes to really get into character — I enjoy the roleplaying aspect of the game. On the other hand, some people like to hack and slash away at monsters and foes, rewarded by the feeling of victory and whatever loot they could plunder. For the latter, competitive D&D sounds like a blast — but good luck getting the former to play.
The good news is, to be successful, RPGSports doesn’t have to get everybody interested in playing competitive D&D — they just have to get people interested in watching it, which might just be easier said than done.
Look at it this way: while most people who watch WWE wrestling love it, most of them would never subject themselves to the punishment that professional wrestling entertainers submit to. And while some people watch RAW and SMACKDOWN for the storyline, plenty more are watching the athleticism and showmanship and violence that occurs once the talking stops.
In fact, this new approach to D&D, if it is successful, could attract an entirely new type of player, the kind that likes to play games but doesn’t like to roleplay. I’ve argued before that, with the costs of school athletics increasing everywhere, kids need more competitive and creative outlets than ever. While games like Magic the Gathering and War Hammer have a higher upfront cost to get into, League of Legends and other eSports can generally be run on relatively low-spec/low-cost computers. The same goes for D&D via the Roll20 platform — but even then, the beauty of D&D is that you don’t need anything but pencils, paper, and people with knowledge of the rules, making it one of the most accessible games ever.
Interestingly, while I think that this Spartan aspect of the game will always be appreciated, I also believe that elements of play such as the use of Roll20 and other technological or physical supplements serve only to enhance the game. While you don’t need figurines to crawl through a dungeon, there’s a certainly a place for them; Mercer and the Critical Role team use them quite often, and, from the viewer’s standpoint, they make epic battles easier to understand and follow. Roll20 helps to accomplish this already, but vast improvements in the realm of Augmented Reality (AR) could help to push tabletop gaming to heights never seen before. Imagine your character fighting monsters, hologram-style, like the futuristic chess set aboard the Millennium Falcon. That’s what AR-D&D could be — someday.
While the AR-empowered future might be far off, RPGSports is happening now, whether anybody likes it or not. The first games are set to be played on November 10th and will be streamed on the RPGSports Twitch page. Here’s the full schedule:
Day 1: November 10th @ 12pm PST — Team Beholder vs. Team Mindflayer
Day 2: November 17th @ 12pm PST — Team Kobold vs. Team Tarrasque
Day 3: November 24th @ 12pm PST — All Stars Charity game for 826LA foundation
Day 4: December 1st @ 12pm PST — Grand Finals
While some may argue that making D&D competitive goes completely against what roleplaying is about, I think they’re missing the point. I agree that the beauty of D&D is in collaborative play, and I’ve often said that the only way to “win” at the game is to create an experience where everybody has fun … but that really only serves to drive my point home.
I think that this new take on D&D could be extremely fun for a lot of people — and those who don’t like it, should just … well, not watch it :)