Actual Plays, Reality Shows, and What’s Next

I’ve been immersed in three different shows over the past several weeks: Critical Role, Skin Wars, and The Magicians. Sure, I know I am literally years behind many of you in seeing these, but it helps a lot to experience them all together, because I think the synthesis of these shows is one of the answers to the “What’s Next?” of gaming. Right off the bat, let’s say that I haven’t read everything that’s been written about transmedia, so if I’m way behind the existing scholarship, then… you’ll have to trust that this is independent invention.

Also, I’ll be heavily referencing some things Colin has written over in Tribality, so if you haven’t read them, go do that too:

E-D&D and Parallel Experiences | Better Living Through Scrivenery


Critical Role and Other Actual Plays

I was super late to get into listening to Actual Plays, and I’ve still never gotten into watching them as they’re streaming. We all get that Critical Role and other shows have brought huge numbers of fans into the hobby, yeah? Anyway, Matthew Mercer clearly does a solid job as a DM running a mostly serious campaign, and it helps that he’s a voice actor. He’s staging good, engaging fights, following the rules more often than not, and sending the PCs to interesting locales. I think we’ll see that a hell of a lot of GMs of the next 10-20 years are starting out making a more refined class of mistakes than the last 40 years of GMs have, because they’re aping a very good one.

The salient points about Critical Role are that they play face-to-face, they stream the game, and they interact with the fans lightly while playing (mostly by receiving real-world things from them, like pizza, and doing things when they hit audience or subscriber numbers). This is great! I’m going to propose a few further points of engagement.

At least early in the campaign – I’ve just finished Ep 16, “Enter Vasselheim” – there’s clearly a lot of lore knocking around in Matthew’s head, and he’s good at spouting it when it’s helpful. What isn’t visibly happening is that the PCs aren’t engaging with that lore in any but the most superficial ways. The PCs are following the story that the DM lays out for them, rather than taking the lead in exploring Tal’Dorei. It’s possible that they were more in the driver’s seat in the pre-podcast earlier levels, but if so, that too is not obvious.

Fans can now buy the Tal’Dorei setting, thanks to the hard work of Green Ronin, and particularly James Haeck. There’s lore, it’s available, thumbs up. It could go deeper, and I’m going to talk about the trend-line of other media toward rich, intense lore.

The other Actual Play I listen to on the regular is How We Roll Podcast, which is also very good. I mention it here because it provides a useful contrast to Critical Role: they’re playing online rather than face-to-face, and they engage with fans somewhat more during play. Where Critical Role plays… mostly the same music, to the point that the players crack wise about it during play, HWRP pours a lot of production value into sound effects. My favorite are the spellcasting verbal effects.

Another key difference is that Critical Role is a single campaign, while HWRP runs an adventure or a short arc, then shifts to another game. There are multiple Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition and D&D 5e arcs, including Curse of Strahd, as well as InSpectres and Everyone Is John. I particularly love their CoC episodes, though, because while the players are still sometimes ridiculous, the plot is taken from published CoC modules – which means it’s dark, terrifying, and dripping with Mythos lore.

I don’t think that either of these shows is better than the other – I go to them for different things. They’re both useful data points on what Actual Play podcasts and livestreams can be.


Skin Wars and Reality TV

Skin Wars,Quest, and Frontier Life are just about the only reality/game shows that I’ve gone out of my way to watch. Kainenchen is a big fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race, so I’ve absorbed a fair amount of that as well. Skin Wars is a competitive body-painting show, while Quest is a fantasy-heroism game. Like most competitive reality shows, one player gets eliminated each episode. Whether through scripting, the magic of film editing, or the pressure cooker of the competition, the players are awful to each other and there are all kinds of little political games.

Specific to Skin Wars, I love the show for the astonishingly good art, occasionally finding that some of the painters aren’t assholes, and Rebecca Romijn’s dresses. The show’s bad parts are that the judges actively stir up conflict that isn’t my idea of fun to watch, the increasing time pressure late in each season means that art quality suffers, and episodes are short so we don’t get enough time to marvel at some of the detail in each piece. The confessional clips add a lot less to the show than they really need to, to justify the time they take up.

Quest was so close to being a mediocre LARP with a great budget and sets. It fell short of that mark by setting the players at one another’s throats while running a bog-standard PvE plot. We barely got a chance to meet half the players because they were eliminated early. (Though occasionally they came back in later episodes.)

Both of these shows, but especially the latter, are very close to being Actual Plays, but with deeper editing cuts than podcasts, to say nothing of livestreams. It just happens that their audience isn’t learning to play by watching them.

Frontier Life is a great rejection of the competitive model, as the participants aren’t drawn along by prize money at the end. Instead, they’re attempting sink-or-swim historical re-enactment in a small community. (I have no idea what’s scripted and what was truly emergent, but…) The show’s tension comes from the participants more organically – it seems like their actual personalities in conflict, while dealing with the demands of survival. Participants are only eliminated through self-selection, because the show understands its own raison d’être: quite literally the players versus the environment.

I think that the most compelling element to lift for Actual Plays is the confessional scene (as already borrowed by InSpectres). I’d also like to see what could be done with games that didn’t have obvious, monster-like sources of threat, and relied more on hothouse pressure, interaction, and never enough resources. Er, I guess I just described Apocalypse World. I think Actual Plays could get good mileage out of both in-character and out-of-character confessionals – not great for the livestream maybe, but supplemental meta-episodes are just another piece of interacting with the fans. (Maybe some shows already do this, I have no idea.)


The Magicians and Lore-Driven Media

As I’ve noted in a G+ post, The Magicians is a great presentation of a very specific Mage: the Awakening 2e chronicle. You should expect me to write about that show and its game-running lessons a good bit in the future. Anyway, what I want to point out about it in this case is that it goes really deep on establishing mysteries and cosmology, to tell tons of personal-mechanical and world-mechanical stories that build toward the main plot. (For explanation of these terms: Five Kinds of Plot.)

This deep approach to lore represents a common development in many kinds of genre fiction. Twin Peaks is a standout as one of the first TV shows to go deep on lore and cosmology, but many shows in the decades following it have learned from it and emphasized world-building – everything from Lost to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Just don’t be JJ Abrams and his perpetually empty mystery box. Audiences are enraged when you reveal that there was no answer, and you were just stringing them along because it’s funny to trigger the nerds.

The trend-line here also involves stripping out goofy humor in favor of tone control and keeping the funny things in-character. The Magicians goes from a fairly standard dark-ish drama to HOLY SHIT CONTENT WARNING WHAT THE FUCK Y’ALL really, really fast. At the same time, though, it’s often very funny – one episode’s B-plot is a long-form pun (almost a shaggy-dog story), but it doesn’t stop there and keeps going with more gags. (Heh.) As the characters note, they’re taught to take an arch and ironic approach to magic, which is sometimes the only glimmer of light in the show.

To cite several other cases of genre fiction mediums developing from light and funny to deep lore and cosmology:

  • Animation – Steven Universe is hugely popular for its setting mysteries and lore, but it’s a great example of how to have both drama and humor together.
  • LARPs – I sort of don’t want to call games out here, but let’s say that NERO’s Tyrra and Wildlands campaigns are as clean an example as you could hope to see. Shattered Isles, King’s Gate, Eclipse,Dust to Dust, and Calamity all went deep on setting lore and mysteries. I’m taking it as a given that Altera Awakens has done so as well. (I’m not saying you have to love deep lore in games, but once a community gets a taste of that style, it usually doesn’t go back.)
  • Novels are sort of a complicated argument to make, because Professor Tolkien went so deep on setting lore in what has become one of the foundational texts of genre fiction. Just keep in mind all of the work that he was building from.

I think we’ll see Actual Plays develop ever more lore for both players and audience to delve into, which winds up folding ARG elements into the fandom. (Obviously, this is a self-serving prediction, because it’s the thing I like and the thing I create by default in games.) I also think that we’ll see gradually increasing emphasis and interest in staying in-character, minimizing table-talk, and playing through dramatic character interactions.



Here’s some stuff I’d like to see incorporated into Actual Plays, and into game systems built for Actual Plays.

  • Confessionals, to deepen audience understanding of characters by getting inside their heads. OOC confessionals also let players step into author stance, without playing the whole game in that stance.
    • Because I don’t know and don’t currently have the time to find out, how well do author-stance games do in Actual Play formats?
  • Deeper lore, with a lot of internal connections and mysteries for players and audience to discover.
  • The audience are the villagers in the settlement that the PCs defend.
    • They get to vote on which of 2-3 different missions the PCs undertake.
    • Through the show’s Patreon (because of course there’s a Patreon), audience members can join the village council and gain more influence in the rewards the PCs receive.
    • As the audience grows, the village becomes a town, then a city. This increases the resources that they can give the PCs for their adventures.
    • The PCs discover a ritual text in the course of play, learn a spell from it, and send it back to the village’s scholars to investigate. When the audience solves the multi-layered puzzle, the PC’s spell improves in some way. There’s some similar development for other character features, or maybe there are thresholds of fan art, 5-star iTunes ratings, and so on to level up other features.

Actual Plays, game shows, and similar media thrive on the sense of authenticity – of watching real people solve problems in real time, or something resembling it. Livestreams and podcasts can probably benefit from further clarifying the stakes and options available to characters, and pushing out-of-the-box thinking.

Obviously, there are far more Actual Plays out there than any one human could take in, so if you know of any that are doing new and innovative things, I’m interested to hear about them.

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