Live streaming TTRPGs: a new immersive experience

by Mike Smith

Live streaming TTRPGs: a new immersive experience
April 29, 2020 Mike Smith

Tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs) now have supporting technical tools that enable the entire game playing experience to be shared online; streaming the roleplaying action whilst also displaying the game’s status and mechanics. This enhances engagement with the watching viewers, who get to see the full picture of the gaming world. We look at this developing phenomenon and speak to an experienced gamesmaster (GM) to find out more.

 

TTRPGs are becoming increasingly popular. The move from roleplaying games being the hobby of fringe groups has been a gradual process since the 1990s. With an increasingly sophisticated palette of fantasy, science fiction, and horror, it was only natural that roleplaying would eventually gain a wider audience. 

Whilst roleplaying games have always traded on the imagery around popular movies, books, and other media, there have been a profusion of specific crossovers with major film and television franchises becoming the setting for adventures. This probably started with Middle Earth Roleplaying (MERP) in 1984 and the incredibly popular Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game shortly after, in 1987. In 2016, the 1983 Expert edition of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) formed a core part of season one of the Netflix drama Stranger Things, so it was only natural that a Stranger Things-themed version of D&D would be published soon after. We also now have systems created using the themes of popular sci-fi TV series like Firefly, Babylon 5, and Battlestar Galactica.

There are crossovers between gaming and screen too, with film franchises like Final Fantasy based on the RPG of the same name and Elite Dangerous (2014) being developed into EDRPG by Spidermind Games.

Now, championed by celebrities like Vin Diesel and Deborah Ann Woll, there are a profusion of roleplaying campaigns being streamed online in series like Critical Role, D&Diesel, and Relics and Rarities; all making use of Youtube, Twitch, and a variety of other online platforms.

Watch and play

One such successful platform for these programmes is Tablestory, run by the quartet of Twitch streamers BradWOTO, Brotatoe, Pumpkinberry, and Wacksteven. It hosts a multitude of shows, including Reaper Relay, an intergalactic adventure in the Mass Effect (2007) universe; Dying Order, a D&D 5th Edition fantasy drama; Zero.Blue.Orion (ZBO) which is based on the Lancer TTRPG system; and Witchcraft and Wizardry (W&W), a Harry-Potter themed TTRPG built on Powered by the Apocalypse.

Many of the shows on Tablestory are long-running series. At the time of writing ZBO has had 35 weekly episodes, each one containing around three hours of gameplay. This provides ample time for character development and multiple gaming scenarios as the players explore their world according to the rules of the gaming system being used. Lancer, upon which ZBO is based, has been around since 2017 and a PDF version is available for free on the publisher’s website. The setting is all about mechs (massive mechanised cavalry units) and the pilots who crew them. 

In contrast to the lasers and aliens of ZBO, Witchcraft and Wizardry takes place in the wonderful magical setting of Hogwarts. This brings a different atmosphere as the student characters develop their personalities, obtain their wands, and explore the castle and its grounds. We are still early in the series (ten episodes in so far) but it is shaping up very nicely indeed — and not that much to catch up on if you want to get up to speed with it.

 

The GM of doom

We caught up with Wacksteven, “The GM of Doom”, who happens to be gamesmaster for both ZBO and W&W.

Thanks for joining us, Wack! How did you get into TTRPG games and online streaming?

I have been a gamer my entire life. We’re talking way back to the Commodore 64 and early Nintendo days. Eventually, I became an Esports broadcaster for Warcraft 3, Starcraft, Unreal Tournament 2003, Enemy Territory, and Starcraft 2.

In 2013 I saw my first game of the Dragon Age RPG being played on Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop show, and this transformed everything! I got into D&D, I played RPGs with friends, and because of my experience with broadcasting (such as the Kings of Tin show) I started streaming the games on Twitch too.

 

What software do you and the players use to support your games?

It varies very much on the show and what’s required to support it — for instance, we use COMP/CON to support ZBO. Roll20 underpins the gameplay and [allows viewers to see the results of dice rolls]. But I also have OBS for streaming, various PDF reference files open in Acrobat, GoXLR for show sound effects, and an Elgato Stream Deck for switching between scenes.

 

Do you have to do anything different for the online element of these games, compared to running a traditional TTRPG?

A lot. There are three distinct ways of playing TTRPGs to consider here. For us, we’re streaming a show. Others might just be playing the game online, and then there’s the traditional tabletop way: all together, in person.

The show is all about production. Timing — have we been on a topic too long; how much combat do we need; how long until we have a break? About the players — how are they feeling? The schedule — it’s a weekly show; is the development and pace right? And finally, ensuring the experience is immersive for everyone (including the viewers).

 

You’ve written Witchcraft and Wizardry from scratch and made it available to download for free. What was the inspiration for this, and do you have any tips for GMs who might be interested in running their own W&W game?

Of course, I created W&W because of my interest in Harry Potter. I wanted to make a system that is easy to understand, and existing systems didn’t capture the essence of Harry Potter for me — they were very statistics-based. I wanted it to be more about the narrative, the students, and the story. I also wanted to ensure it was easy for kids to understand. Everyone on the show latched onto it very quickly, with little explanation from me.

For GMs, the system is a skeleton and has ways to generate things (like creatures and villains) easily. My tips would be to focus on your players and the kind of story they want to do. Figure out how much time you have: is it just a one-off session, a handful of sessions, or is it going to be a long-term weekly event? Where do you want to be in the evolution of the characters? What school year do you want to set the experience in?

 

Is there anything you can share about upcoming W&W scenarios that the players will face (without spoilers, of course)?

The players drive this game. How they react to things will determine how the show will progress. All I’ll say is that I hope that we will be running for multiple school years!

 

Thank you, Wack!

Why watch these shows? 

For aspiring GMs, they are a great educational tool. An experienced GM like Wacksteven makes it look easy; he has the knowledge of the systems being used and the creativity and the tools in his arsenal to keep the story development moving at an appropriate pace, as well as to answer player questions and make decisions when required. Seeing how he mentors and guides the players is quite the spectacle. Not to mention his impressions…

But the stars of these shows are undoubtedly the player characters. There tend to be four or five core players who remain throughout these series. Due to holidays or other commitments, there are times when a particular player may not be available, and trusted stand-ins can come in to maintain a critical mass with a new temporary or recurring character. This works really well as there is consistency and continuity, but also variety as the game evolves. Each of the players tends to have their own presence on Twitch and their own fan bases, built around their respective content. And of course, they bring their own unique personalities too. Watching the interactions between the players as they explore both themselves and the environment is entertaining — and, at times, hilarious!

Two of the five regular players in Witchcraft and Wizardry are UK-based content creators: Zcotticus, who plays the role of Alexander Pippin (a Harry Potter-esque name if I ever heard one) and helloitskolo, who plays Masie Skyler. The UK certainly has a footprint in this TTRPG streaming landscape.

 

Community

The community is what differentiates Twitch (and indeed other streaming platforms) from a traditional broadcast media format. It brings an interactive element between streamers and viewers, and indeed between the viewers themselves. Many platforms are designed for this, but also require the content provider to tailor what they produce to include their interaction with the audience as part of the programme.

Geek and Sundry, the incredibly popular multimedia production channel, was founded by Felicia Day in 2012 after the success of her Youtube mini-series, The Guild (2007-2013). Since then it has produced a variety of different shows, including Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop and a host of different roleplaying game series. With the emphasis on a polished production, Geek and Sundry established a lot of the basic principles which many other streaming roleplaying game groups tend to follow. There is also a trend to being more engaged and connecting directly with viewers as they watch, encouraging people to comment and give their opinions as the campaign progresses.

One of the rewards that Twitch channel subscribers obtain access to (see sidebar) is a set of emoticons that can be used in the accompanying chat; stylised symbols that can be used to express joy, disappointment, sorrow, surprise, and indeed anything that the community might recognise, including ‘in’ jokes. Emoticons can be used not only in the channel of the Twitch streaming roleplayer to which they belong, but all across Twitch. And with that, the channel’s atmosphere is brought to Tablestory during these events by that community. This brings the interactive chat to life in the most glorious visual way, as you see the waves of enthusiasm expressed graphically during character roleplay. Each of the participating roleplayers has their particular set of emoticons, and you end up with a wholesome collaboration and visual mishmash, as viewers support each other and the unfolding story.

Live streaming and TTRPGs: 1 + 1 > 2

So the combination of TTRPG and internet streaming services has enabled the creation of a new type of entertainment show, with participants and contributions from across the globe. It’s live, interactive, cooperative, fun, rewarding — with some brilliant roleplay and storytelling to boot. What’s more; you’re actually a part of it. We encourage you to go and check out some of these shows, and join in with the communities.

Tablestory can be found at https://www.tablestory.tv/, where you can also download Wacksteven’s Witchcraft and Wizardry TTRPG materials. The full archive of Tablestory TTRPG content can be found on youtube at https://www.youtube.com/tablestory so you can catch up.

We hope that this exploration of the magical world of live streaming TTRPGs unlocks the door to a whole new set of experiences for you… Alohomora