There are two ways of playing Dungeons & Dragons. This is not something that I had really considered or thought through before my trip to the livestreamed announcement and fan gathering D&D Live 2019: The Descent that took place May 17 through 19, but it became clear as I sat and talked and interviewed and watched and listened and played in the full immersion of the Dungeons & Dragons community for a few days.
First, there’s the Dungeons & Dragons that the designers and developers at Wizards of the Coast create. It’s the game of the Player’s Handbook, the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and the published adventures that trickle out a couple of times a year that serve to add rules or create pre-packaged adventures for players. Adventures like Storm King’s Thunder or Ghosts of Saltmarsh are books you can pick up and run through as a group of players without a whole lot of startup cost, and they’re balanced and playtested by a team of dedicated professionals who color within some formally delimited lines of world and tone and characters.
At the bottom, the descent of The Descent is wrapped around that core development program of corporate created content. The next Dungeons & Dragons book is going to take us from the videogame-famous city of Baldur’s Gate and into the plane of Avernus, the topmost layer of D&D’s hell. It’s the kind of choice of a setting that has to speak to a lot of people at once: older fans of the Baldur’s Gate games will recognize that part, and even older fans understand that Avernus is the plane on which devils (who are lawful evil, and therefore love contracts and dealings) and demons (who are chaotic evil, and therefore abhor anything resembling obligation or standardization) do war. Newer players to the fantasy universe upon which the D&D game rests might not know anything about it, and they’re probably just excited to go to hell.
That’s a lot of expectations and obligations to fulfill, and the design team seems to have made the choice of radical reconfiguration rather than some kind of attempted fidelity to everyone’s particular favorite thing in this part of hell. I heard the phrase “Fury Road in hell” several times over the weekend, and basically every streamed game that operated as a kind of preview for what you can do in this upcoming book featured hell motorcycles and behemoth war machines fueled by souls that have been transformed into coins and generally just absolute chaos across the wastes. All of this builds out the world of D&D in predictable ways: we begin in the official setting of Faerun in the familiar city of Baldur’s Gate on the familiar Sword Coast and then we go into something unexpected and yet well-anchored in the past 40 years of Dungeons & Dragons official play. This is what these products look like and how they act, and when Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus comes out on September 17, it’s going to enable a lot of great D&D sessions.
Adventures like that, though, are the platform on which the actual play of Dungeons & Dragons stands. And after spending a few days with the biggest fans of the game, I feel confident in saying that there are basically two distinct games of D&D that exist in the world right now: the one you can watch people play and the one that you can play at your own table.
Nothing makes this more apparent than a livestreamed D&D event. Alongside existing as a vehicle for announcements, The Descent also hinged on bringing together a large number of creators who stream live Dungeons & Dragons play on Twitch regularly. These are the people who play the game in public, and with a game as variable as D&D, bringing together a wide range of creators is also a way of bringing together a lot of different ways to play the game.
The way this shook out was a main event and side event dynamic where famous players like Marisha Ray, Joe Manganiello, and Deborah Ann Woll took to a big stage and played boisterous, big games of D&D in front of a live audience, while the smaller names, like Rivals of Waterdeep or Dragon Friends, were around smaller tables for a stream-only audience. An event aimed at a streaming demographic, and one that likely can’t spend the hundreds of dollars for tickets to be there physically, clearly needed this hydra of content in order to face the many different audiences at play, but I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed that I couldn’t watch any of this non-headliner content while I was there.
That live audience experience, though, really put some things together for me about Dungeons & Dragons in 2019. I’ve watched a stream or two of tabletop roleplaying in my day, and although I’ve tried to make the leap to “fan” for a lot of these shows, they just haven’t quite fit into my life in a way that allows me to really dig into them. In the wake of the social and commercial success of the show Critical Role since 2015 (and which recently raised over $11 million to create an animated program), there’s been a little bit of a rush on producing tabletop roleplaying content for internet consumption. And, to be clear, there seem to be enough audience members to absorb that rush. People love watching other people play D&D.
And, again, being in the live audience really drives that home because of how bizarre it is. I don’t mean that as a dig or an insult. After all, I’ve been deep in the D&D weirdness for more than half of my life, from sitting and making 2nd Edition characters alone at home to playing a drunken, dirty wizard in 3.5 and almost exclusively DMing under 5th Edition for a few years. I am into this stuff.
I have never been so into Dungeons & Dragons that I have cheered for a dice roll.
And yet that’s the kind of thing that happened during the big sessions of The Descent. A packed room, with stars of screen and stream sitting in a row beside a talented Dungeon Master, and people were absolutely hollering about high rolls and low rolls and natural 1s and 20s. The game theorist Roger Caillois wrote about how dice rolls were aleatory, completely up to the gods, and if that’s true then the audience in that room was feeling the whims of the pantheon as much as someone wailing for mercy at a temple of Athena.
When comedian Taran Killam, a special guest on one of the shows, started belting out “Maggie May” in-character as his bard as a mode of communication, the apex of the performance of D&D had been reached. When Deborah Ann Woll takes her voice low and begins doing a serious storyteller voice (a mode of speaking in D&D streams that is reminiscent of “poet voice” in lots of ways), the mood gets somber and everyone listens in. When surprises happen, each player reacts with their full range of emotions. These are the hallmarks of D&D-as-performance, a relatively new mutation in the game where it exists not just as something to play but as a platform from which you can build out interactions and collaborative stories that are not just fulfilling to experience for yourself but fulfilling for others to watch. When I spoke to Adam Bradford, the General Manager of D&D Beyond, he described Dungeons & Dragons as an operating system, a kind of mediating presence that allows lots of things to come into contact with one another. It maps relationships between content creators, fans, corporate intellectual property, and platforms like Twitch, Roll20, and D&D Beyond. And it does it with emotion.
Applauding for dice rolls or laughing at the Family Guy-esque cultural non sequitur is part of D&D as spectator sport, as content, as the special event that rivals the HBO show or the Showtime prestige drama for time in your life. There’s a reason that successful actors from comedy, drama, and reality television have so easily transitioned into making truly excellent content in this medium: D&D is what scholars like Carol Clover and Linda Williams have called “body genres,” those specific kinds of entertainment that ask you to identify so strongly with characters that you cry with them when they lose, laugh with them while they’re being foolish, and cringe when truly horrible things happen with them. The whole apparatus, from top to bottom, brings the viewer into the fold as an additional player at the table.
The work of performing a D&D game is the same kind of work that proliferates across the digital ecology in our current era of influencers and organic brands. You want to imagine that Jim Zub and Matthew Mercer, playing the fantastical power team of Minsc and Boo, are your friends. They do an exceedingly good job of making it seem like you could be their friend. They’re open and honest and emotional with their play, making the right joke when there’s an opening and taking the melodramatic tag when it’s available for them. And everyone in the room feels emotionally tied into not only the arcs of these characters but in the arcs of these famous players of their favorite game.
It is successful as a marketing strategy because it’s legitimately good entertainment. Unlike Fortnite or League of Legends, D&D is actually a platform that allows for intimate stories and longform narratives to be told. Those other highly streamed games might allow for something like the sports narrative of “I was there, now I’m here, look at me go,” but D&D plays to those melodramatic or horrific beats perfectly. As a collaborative storytelling medium, players can dig into their acting chops and really show off their talents; on the other side, players can understand why choices are being made and have intensive reactions to these long lines of decision and storytelling week to week or even day to day. Good D&D is like the best soap operas, hitting all the same notes and desires, and I mean that in an extremely complementary sense.
But that’s the game as it is played for an audience, for a viewer, for a fan. That is the game as it is performed. If Dungeons & Dragons were only that, it would basically be improv theatre. But it’s not; it’s a game, with a rule system, that is played in homes and offices and bars across the world. If it’s an operating system, the the actors onstage are the power users. The thousands of other levels of skill are out there churning away and making the game their own.
While I was watching one of the celebrity streams, someone behind me was noting every time that a rule was being misused or when the players weren’t necessarily doing things by the book. When I played an adventure set in Avernus on the Saturday morning with a random group of people, one player began several sentences with “I don’t want to metagame” before jumping immediately into a metagame tactical strategy. Slightly later, one of our party members heroically sacrificed himself and then sat at the table for the next hour, his character dead. And all of this is good, and it’s part of the game: we all know the person who cares deeply about the rules; and the person who wants to take an optimal strategy; and the person who makes a brash decision and pays an in-game price for it. These are all common things that happen at the tabletop table. They’re normal. They’re a part of the game.
They’re a part of the game as it is played, but they are not part of the game as it is watched. I cannot imagine a serious discussion of the rules of D&D happening in a timed stream session, or even on any of the bigger streams, since they need to generally keep moving. Discussions of fiddly combat tactics or the sudden death of a party member? No. When people are performing D&D, they are crafting a longform story that gets you invested and thinking about yourself in relation to that narrative. When you’re playing D&D, you’re negotiating a rule set and trying to find some strategies that give you a solid narrative as well as keep you alive against very specific enemies with very specific stats and resistances and weapons and armor. It’s a more complicated, complex, unwieldy experience.
I don’t draw a distinction between these two forms of Dungeons & Dragons to say that one is better than the other, or that the home experience is somehow more pure, but rather simply to point out that there is a difference. The game exists as a platform from which content is produced that you can enjoy, and then the platform itself, its sourcebooks and guides and all of those things. An event like The Descent puts those two things side-by-side, and it’s an odd feeling to know that this oddly shaped thing can support all of this but that, depending on how you come into contact with the game for the first time, you might have a radically different experience. For instance, I cannot imagine what it feels like to watch a campaign of Critical Role before picking up a published adventure for the first time. It has to be a wild, dissonant ride.
It might be a positive ride, though. If my initiation into the hobby had been “do cool wizard stuff” instead of “read all of these wizard spells and see how they work and think about why you might choose them in a campaign,” I might have had a more creative gaming adolescence. The ability to make Dungeons & Dragons your own is a core feature that everyone involved in it talks about, and watching dozens of different people play the game is an object lesson in how you take these unwieldy rule tomes and turn them into something engaging and compelling. The next generation of D&D-obsessed roleplayers will be a different kind of player, and that’s exciting.
Late on the second day of The Descent, I watched a group of people trying to navigate a food truck out from underneath some hanging tarps that covered part of the courtyard of the event. A man with a pole would lift up an edge, the truck would inch forward, and they progressed that way slowly. They communicated the whole time, loudly, and with hand signals. A security guard wandered over and just started yelling “go, go!” when clearly, to any observer, the truck should definitely not do that. The man with the pole politely said that only one voice was needed here, and that the truck driver had a hard drive already. They eventually made it out.
And when I saw that, I couldn’t help but think that this is what Dungeons & Dragons is about. It’s what the whole event was about. There was a struggle toward a goal, and there were some complications, and there were people who made it their business to make the whole thing harder than it needed to be. Clear communication and calm heads won out, and they were all in it together.
I’m as critical as you can be about the usefulness of massive corporations using their intellectual property and proprietary rulesets to paint a more positive picture of the world. That’s always scratching on the inside of my head when I’m engaging with D&D and its vast corporate imaginary. But the willingness of the platform to hand itself to the players and embrace seems good. It’s hard to look at the incredibly diverse crowd of people at the event talking about the thing they love and not consider that a game that is predicated on making it yours, whoever you are, is fundamentally a better kind of experience than so many games that are invested in saying that they’re for a certain group of hardcore or competitive or committed or a loud crowd who is always trying to prevent change from happening.
The Descent was an event about announcing that Dungeons & Dragons is going to hell, and there were plenty of jokes about everything else going to hell all weekend long. But sitting in that room listening to people enjoy listening to streamers make friends was heartening. And playing at a table of enthusiastic, emotive people all trying to rack up coins to get out of Avernus was enthusiastic. And I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something fundamentally more rewarding about watching and playing this game than there is playing my fiftieth hour of Apex Legends.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, is available on Steam.