Six Dungeons & Dragons players place models of their characters in a miniature hallway as they explore a tomb laid before them. They know which way they should go, but they can see other parts of the map are covered up and just waiting to be explored. While five players think it's best to just keep the main quest in mind and move forward, one isn't so sure about ignoring those spaces. Here's where the twist comes in: The player turns to the audience and says "you guys want to see what's under there, right?" And then the live audience responds with cheers.
Live D&D is a growing phenomenon, and an enthusiastic audience watched the mostly imaginary action from all angles at the Force Grey: Survive the Tomb live show that was held on Nov. 18 at Villain in Brooklyn. It was the finale of the second season of Force Grey, a Dungeons & Dragons game following a group of adventurers from Waterdeep. The season featured the group trying to save the world from a horrible curse as they played through the Tomb of Annihilation adventure released earlier this fall. Somewhat complicated, sure, but the audience followed along the entire time.
Voice actor Matthew Mercer (Overwatch, Critical Role) was the dungeon master for a fellow group of actors: Joe Manganiello (True Blood, Magic Mike), Deborah Ann Woll (Daredevil, The Punisher), Utkarsh Ambudkar (Pitch Perfect, The Mindy Project), Marisha Ray (Fire Emblem Warriors, Critical Role), Brian Posehn (Steven Universe, The Big Bang Theory), and Dylan Sprouse (The Suite Life of Zack & Cody). Previous episodes of the second season were shared online, but it all ended in Brooklyn Saturday night.
The show was broadcast on Twitch simultaneously, but that didn't stop plenty of fans from buying tickets to attend the event instead of staying home to watch for free. Ticket prices ranged from $20 to $65 for VIP seats. VIPs were able to sit closer to the stage and received a copy of Xanathar's Guide to Everything, the first major expansion for the Dungeons & Dragons fifth edition, which wasn't widely released until after the event on November 21. According to a Wizards of the Coast spokesperson, more than 400 people attended the show.
The open space of Villain was a perfect venue for the game. As people entered, they were greeted by a number of displays to look at and a bar where they could purchase food and drinks as a Beholder decoration hung over their heads. Rows of seats faced a stage with a large screen to its left, where you could watch the players and see any overhead shots of maps that the audience would otherwise be unable to see from their seats. These views would be easily seen by those watching at home as the event was live-streamed. Those viewers wouldn't have to worry about not seeing the map or having views blocked by people getting up to get food or use the bathroom.
Watching live-streams and recordings as well as listening to podcasts of people playing Dungeons & Dragons has grown in popularity in the last few years. Shows like Critical Role on Geek & Sundry have earned dedicated fans that stream live online every week or check out the videos after the fact on YouTube. Watching videos for free is one thing; why would fans then want to pay money for a live show instead of watching from home?
For New York-based friends Ashley, Roger, and Wally, this marked the first time they were attending a live Dungeons & Dragons show that wasn't part of a convention they attended. While Ashley has been playing the tabletop game since she was 10 years old, Wally and Roger are newcomers who just started playing with the release of the fifth edition. All of them are fans of Critical Role, but this event was Ashley's first time seeing Force Grey. She wanted to attend because she enjoys seeing everything improvised, as a big improvisational DM herself. She said it's fun to see others do it and to learn from watching them as well. According to Roger, the choice to attend the event was similar to choosing to go to a live sports game instead of watching on TV.
"The atmosphere and being around people who share the same interest as you and having those big events happen on the stage in front of you, you just get caught up in it," Wally added. "You see the bad rolls happen. You see the great rolls happen at the same time. Seeing all that happen right in front of you is a good feeling."
Mercer is no stranger to these live shows or Dungeons & Dragons. He's been playing the game and DMing off and on for about 21 years, ever since his freshman year of high school.
"Role-playing games have been a huge part of my life and a huge part of my training as a performer, learning social skills, meeting friends, and being a generally competent person, so I owe a lot to role-playing games," he told SYFY WIRE.
Mercer has been DMing Critical Role almost every Thursday night for the last two years. The show was the continuation of a Pathfinder game Mercer and his friends, including Ray, had already been playing for two years before then. Mercer was also the DM for the first season of Force Grey and called this experience a blast.
"It's crazy, because I'm used to creating my own homebrew content, and so to run existing premade content is a very different preparation experience for me, but I like it because it's a different skill set and it's an opportunity to bring in players that I didn't have the chance to meet beforehand," he said. 'I've made a bunch of new friends through it. Like any tabletop experience, if you play with people you've never played with before, you can't help but form friendships."
Critical Role has also held live ticketed shows, and Mercer called playing with a live audience a "unique experience" when compared to online streams. He said he loves it, and as a theater person he feeds off of audience energy.
"It's a natural cycle. I thrive on it. For the most part, as long as you're upfront about it, the audience is very respectful. They don't shout out too much," he said. "You have time constraints a bit, and there are certain things that normally in a home game you can breathe and just come back to it in a few weeks, but in a live space it's still a show, so there are a lot of elements of trimming here and there and making things work for the flow of the game without slowing it down with arguing over rules and logistics. It's a little, I think, more performance art for a live audience."
Corinne Taylor from Brooklyn became a fan of Force Grey after watching Critical Role, and she's no stranger to attending live shows. She bought a VIP ticket to attend the Critical Role live show at Gen Con earlier this year and sat right in the front row. She started playing D&D about six or seven years ago but has been a fan her whole life. Her dad played and she thought it was "the coolest thing in the world" as a kid. She wanted to be at Saturday's event because, like the Critical Role players, Force Grey is also made up of actors.
"They feed off the energy in a room in a very palpable way, and being a part of that is really cool," Taylor said.
Taylor's friend Kelly Marco recently started playing D&D, in the last two and a half years. She started watching Titansgrave on Geek & Sundry and then discovered Critical Role. From there she's caught bits of Force Grey. This was the first time she was attending a live D&D show. She agreed with Taylor about feeling the energy in the room and being able to see how others are reacting to what's happening.
"It's kind of like when you go to live comedy or things like that. It's always funnier and more enjoyable to do it in person and see it in person," Marco said.
The energy is something Mercer thinks is attractive to those attending live D&D shows, just like seeing any other live show. He also thinks another part is being invested in an improvised narrative.
"There's a story. There's a structure, and the DM is running a prepared story element, but the choices, the successes, the failures, the path that's taken. So much of it is created on the spot that you're there with them and you're excited to know what's going to happen next, because the performers, the players, don't know what's going to happen next," Mercer explained. "It's got a very unique thrill to the experience that people get invested in the story. I never would have expected it to be something to watch in a live show. I'm still kind of blown away by it."
Jennifer from Brooklyn was a VIP attendee who sat right in the front row for the event. Her mother was a dungeon master and got her involved in the game when she was about 6.
"I kind of fell out of afterwards. Then I started watching Critical Role a couple of years ago, and that got me into being a dungeon master, so it's kind of a lifelong thing, kind of a returning passion," she said.
The audience laughed, cheered, sighed, and gasped together as events unfolded on stage. There was a sense of community that filled the room, as you knew everyone was there for one reason, a love of D&D. It didn't matter if they hadn't played in years or had just started. People discussed what class their characters were, what adventures they'd recently played, and even what other D&D shows they had watched. Jennifer and others were decked out in apparel and accessories inspired by D&D and specific shows; there was even some Critical Role cosplay in the audience. The overall atmosphere was welcoming and charged with excitement.
The game went about seven hours, far surpassing its scheduled four. As the game stretched on with one break, no one complained. There was no mass exodus of people from the audience. There was no rushed feeling or sense of frustration from the players. There was only an eagerness to see how this story would end, no matter how long it took.
With Critical Role and other shows taking their games to live audiences, could we see watching role-playing games live become as popular as watching these games online? Could these events become part of our entertainment just like concerts or sports and happen more often across the country? Mercer thinks we'll continue to see live shows as long as the audience is there for it. The audience for games doesn't have to be huge. For Mercer, if you stream a home game and just a hundred people watch and are invested in your story, that expands your community beyond the people just around your table.
"Part of the reason that I wanted to do it in the first place was to inspire people to go and play the game themselves. For a lot of people Dungeons & Dragons has been a hard thing to describe. I can't tell you how many social environments I've been in where I say 'I play D&D,' and a bunch of normies will be like, 'How does the game even work? What's that like?' I didn't have anything to really describe it that didn't make me sound like a crazy person," Mercer said. "But now we have videos. We can show you on YouTube, 'It's like this.' Boom. Almost in no time, people go 'Oh, that looks like a lot of fun. I can probably do that.' There was no other way to get that reaction beforehand, so for me it's been a really cool way to bring people into the hobby and dispel the myths about D&D. It's been really exciting."
For the fans at Villain last weekend, they were gathering in person away from the screens of computers and TVs to share an experience that goes beyond what's possible by chatting with fellow watchers online, just as attending a baseball game or other live event does. The potential for D&D shows with live audiences to become more popular is clearly there as the role-playing game continues to increase in popularity and share its potential with a wider audience.