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When a Dungeons & Dragons adventuring party ventures deep into a fearsome dragon's lair, they're often hoping to collect some gold coins or valuable gems from the creature's vast horde of riches. Increasingly, these fantasy adventures can earn people real money in the real world too, as streaming D&D and other tabletop RPGs has become a flourishing industry.
Will Jones is very familiar with both the fictional and real-world riches that RPGs can bring. Jones has been an avid fan of role-playing games since he was 10 years old, and when he was 18, he took things to another level. Putting his college education on pause, Jones started EncounterRoleplay to professionally stream D&D and other tabletop games. Now, nearly five years later. EncounterRoleplay boasts 27,000 followers on Twitch, 18,000 YouTube subscribers, and three million total views. Jones says the business made him more than $100,000 last year, thanks in part to working with major games companies.
Jones, who engineers and manages all his various streams alongside five other engineers he hired, puts a lot of work behind the fun and games. EncounterRoleplay's growing roster of shows features several different groups of players and lots of different tabletop games (Jones recommends a series where they play the vampire-centric D&D campaign "Curse of Strahd" as a good starting point for new viewers).
For our new Nerdy Jobs series, SYFY WIRE spoke with Jones about how EncounterRoleplay got started, what goes into making a legitimate business out of streaming, and why D&D and other tabletop games are having such a moment nowadays.
What is your nerd origin story? How did you get into role-playing games, D&D, and streaming?
I started my first role-playing game when I was about 10 years old. It was a Warhammer Fantasy role-play, I remember because I was really into those little models when I was a kid. I went on a camping trip with my parents and family and we were stuck in this horrible little tent in a miserable place in England in the rain. I brought out this book and said, "we're going to play this game," and they were like "it's not a board game? How does this work, it's magic."
That's how I started playing games. When I was about 18 and was at college. I started to see that D&D streaming was a thing. I had a group that we'd been playing online together, and said, "hey, I want to start a channel, stream this game, I think it will be interesting." I sort of learned how to do all the stuff, set up the broadcast, streamed a little on Twitch, and we went from there.
What was it like pausing your education to launch this unorthodox, nerdy business? Was it nerve-wracking? What did your friends and family think?
The show started with the four of us, three friends of mine from Essex, where I come from. It began to expand from there. It was one show a week, at first, and then over the course of about a year while I was studying at university, I decided that it was something that I could do full-time, and something that I really wanted to pursue. It was a make or break sort of time.
It was nerve-wracking. Quite a leap of faith, I suppose. My girlfriend at the time, now my fiancee, was very supportive, fully behind me, as well as the rest of my friends who were doing this. Family, less understanding, because it wasn't exactly clear to them what I was doing or how I was making any money.
How would you explain your job to a non-nerd, or I guess your parents, in this case. What goes on behind-the-scenes to make EncounterRoleplay happen?
A whole lot of it is organizational work. Making sure that six or seven people are ready at the same time and in the same place each and every week for 16 weeks is not easy. It's a lot of managing people's schedules along with creating assets and the software that we use to create the streams. It was a lot heavier of a workload for the first two years, and for these past two years I've been scaling back my own time and involvement so there's a little less that I have to do personally.
It's a lot of things like social media, responding to emails, that kind of thing. It looks like it's all fun and games, because when you're on a show, you're just having a great time. But, I suspect that for every hour broadcast, there's an hour or two put into making sure the broadcast happens.
How do you make money streaming RPGs? How sustainable is this field?
One of the ways that we monetize the show is via sponsorships. Companies will want us to play their role-playing games. We've worked with Wizards of the Coast, Chaosium, Kobold Press, a bunch of different publishers that want to get their games out there or to promote them. There are also ways for folks to interact with our games as well, offer them opportunities to donate and throw extra monsters at the party or throw magic items at them, pets, everything you can imagine, really, to influence the game.
Platforms like Patreon make up a large part of the revenue as well, as do Twitch subscriptions and you add in revenue from Twitch ads and YouTube ads as well. So, it's surprisingly monetizable.
When did you know you'd made the right decision to start EncounterRoleplay?
I guess after the first year was when I realized, I'd survived a year of self-employment and that the numbers were looking better than they had previously when I decided to go full time. So, after that first year was when I really thought, alright, we've really got something here that is sustainable, it's not just a sudden spike.
I think D&D and RPGs work incredibly well on new forms of media like streaming and podcasting. It draws in a lot of people who maybe had an idea of what D&D was in the '80s and '90s but now see it brought to life before their very eyes. It sort of made it cooler as well, it's not such a basement-dwelling thing. It's got mainstream appeal — celebrities play the game.
I also think it's incredibly collaborative and brings people together to communicate with one another and talk with one another in a way that video games or television don't. That's something that people really like or need, to form long-lasting connections and be around a table with other people or feel like they're around a table with other people, and role-playing games… There's definitely something in us that loves telling stories, and that's what the core of role-playing games is, telling stories to a bunch of people. It's strangely fulfilling.
They say "do what you love, and never work a day in your life," but does turning these games into work change things for you? Is it still fun to play?
I definitely still love the games. That's something that I love about every single one of them in a different way, I suppose. It's also fulfilling to see that other people are enjoying them or getting something from them, that's great.
I think, just like in any relationship there's an early bit where you're totally over your head in love with everything about the game and there's nothing that could be wrong about it or that you wouldn't enjoy about it. Some of that fades away after it's been five years I've been doing this full time. I don't feel this stirring passion just thinking about D&D every moment of my life. That would be unhealthy I think, because it is work. But, I see the really work part of it as being that managerial stuff. The fun part of it is just getting to play the games, really.
What's next for EncounterRoleplay?
As of when we're talking, it's been 42 days in the year, and we have streamed for 22 days worth of RPG stuff. So, we have streamed for about 50 percent of the year. My goal is to see the channel turn into a 24-hour sort of television channel of different role-playing shows happening. Not all actual play, but maybe tabletop news, stuff like that. I'd love to see the channel to go into 24/7 mode and become the first channel to do that. There's definitely a space for it. People are devouring the content, and we can't make it fast enough.