Jester Critical Role art by Ashlee Blackburn
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Credit: Ashlee Blackburn

How streaming Dungeons & Dragons shows inspire amazing fan works

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Dec 12, 2018, 12:14 PM EST (Updated)

Part of the thrill of Dungeons & Dragons is that you never know what's going to happen to your party when you round that corner in a goblin-controlled mine (and the Dungeon Master doesn't know what his players are going to do, either). Everything can change on the roll of a die, which means that creators making fan works about any of the numerous streaming D&D shows out there have a unique challenge.

These shows, like Critical Role and Dice, Camera, Action, are usually streamed on Twitch and YouTube. Like your typical Dungeons & Dragons campaign, the tabletop game doesn't have a set end or plot to follow. The stories change and shift depending on the improvised actions of players and are ever-evolving. While popular shows may have some official art, you're not reminded every week of what the characters and settings look like. There's lots of room for interpretation, especially since a character can drastically change after just one episode.

Freelance illustrator Ashlee Blackburn started watching Critical Role, one of the most popular D&D streaming shows, last year. The series, which features a group of professional voice actor friends who play every Thursday, began streaming on Geek & Sundry and has since grown to become its own brand, with new programming on its own channels. The show is currently on its second campaign, and Blackburn has created art for both campaigns since becoming a fan.

Blackburn, who started watching on the recommendation of friends when she was sick, had never watched a D&D streaming show before or played the game herself, but she was captivated — not just by the relationships between the characters and wanting to know what happens next, but by the relationships between the players as friends. She was inspired to create her first piece when the character Keyleth from the first campaign received her fire hands power.

Keyleth Critical Role art by Ashlee Blackburn

Art by Ashlee Blackburn

"I kind of drew it thinking nobody would look at it because all my other fan art usually gets like maybe a 100 notes [on Tumblr] if I was lucky. I posted Keyleth and she got 1,000 and I was blown away. I didn't expect that kind of reaction," Blackburn told SYFY WIRE.

Since then, Critical Role has become the inspiration for most of her art. She creates a piece once a week. A frequency she's never had with fan art before.

"The reaction and the moments that inspire you, there's so many that it's made it a lot easier to want to work and draw or sew or whatever I want to do that week," she explained.

Cosplayer Annalise Fredericks started watching Wizards of the Coast's show Dice, Camera, Action (DCA) in 2016. She was familiar with D&D from high school and was interested in the "bare bones" experience of the DCA stream where they play over webcam and tell a story that made her feel invested in the characters. Fredericks told SYFY WIRE she discovered other like-minded people who also loved the story, which made her think there must be other streams out there with more amazing stories. She then began to watch other such shows and has created cosplay for them too since her very first inspired by a stream, the character Strix from DCA.

Fredericks has a few versions of Strix since the character has evolved through the stream, in an example of the challenge of such a changing show. For her, these streams have taken the top spot above other fandoms in what inspires her cosplay.

"You can bring your own level of creativity to it because there's no set way the characters are supposed to look. The people playing the characters enjoy seeing all interpretations of their characters, and it's just such a community," Fredericks said.

Strix Dice, Camera, Action cosplay by Annalise Fredericks

Strix cosplay by Annalise Fredericks. Photo credit: Charmaine Morgan Photography

Artist Nurse Normal had a similar experience in becoming involved in a streaming D&D fandom. She first became a fan of Acquisitions Incorporated because she was already a fan of Penny Arcade, and was hooked after listening to the podcast's first episode. She took a break from drawing while in nursing school, but was inspired to start again and draw some characters from the campaign after seeing their streamed live games.

"I think Dungeons & Dragons is about the story and the characters. That's what inspires me the most," she told SYFY WIRE.

Nurse Normal didn't share any of her art until Penny Arcade started their weekly live show Acquisitions Incorporated: The "C" Team. She thought people might enjoy it, shared it on Twitter, and her work began to spread.

Like most fandoms, art and cosplay are far from the only ways these fans express themselves. You can find fiction written by fans on subreddits for the shows and fanfiction websites like Archive of Our Own, where the "Critical Role (web series)" tag shows over 6,000 works. There are even unique animatics where fans use the audio from games and animate scenes from the shows to bring the characters to life.

Acquisitions Incorporated art by Nurse Normal

Art by Nurse Normal

Fans are also inspired to create music, whether it's their versions of songs from shows or brand-new creations. This was taken to an incredible level when fans teamed up to form The Cantata Pansophical and remake the entire Hamilton album to tell part of Critical Role's first campaign for Vox Machina: An Exandrian Musical. Will Crosswait had the idea after he'd been watching the show for a while and was kept engaged due to the character development.

"I saw all these artists and wonderful creators making their stuff and putting it online for everyone to enjoy. I was like, well, I can't draw, but maybe I can make a song like [the bard character] Scanlan, so I recorded a few Scanlan songs, full versions of the songs of inspiration he would sing," Crosswait told SYFY WIRE.

When Scanlan performed a Hamilton song, Crosswait decided to write a full version and asked a friend to sing the woman parts. They had fun working together and started seeing people in the community post different Hamilton references online. He thought that eventually the community was going to rewrite the whole thing, and that gave him the idea for the album. Crosswait found fellow fans to help by reaching out on Reddit, and the result is an epic album.

These songs and album were the first time Crosswait was inspired to create something for a fandom. He said he'd never really connected to anything else before in this way and finds the community a special one. Crosswait is far from the only one who has been inspired for the first time to create thanks to a streaming D&D show. Fans have also been inspired to try their hands at areas like cosplay and animatics thanks to these shows.

Unlike other fandoms, creators are also presented with a unique way to interact with those inspiring their work. Fredericks has experienced "a level of interaction which you don't really see with other shows or games or movies." Players and Dungeon Masters are not only acknowledging fans, sharing their work, and talking with them on social media. After The "C" Team each week, there's the aftershow Table Talk, where the cast highlight everything from art to tea inspired by their characters that fans send them. Critical Role showcases art in galleries online and before their stream as well as awards prizes to fan art of the week and gif of the week winners on their talk show Talks Machina, where you can often see a plush of character Kiri Blackburn made being cuddled on the couch. Critical Role also takes showcasing fan art to the next level with beautiful books curating work from the community that are available for purchase.

It inspires a unique community atmosphere in the fandoms as fans interact not only with each other but with the creators themselves, whether online or meeting them at conventions.

"Every single person I've met who has heard of me or seen something I did has been incredibly kind. I think that's because the cast of Acquisitions Incorporated and The "C" Team are so accessible online. They're very easy to talk to and just show me such kindness. It's been extraordinary," Nurse Normal said.

She's even worked with members of Acquisitions Incorporated to create works and teased to SYFY WIRE that she may be working with them on more that fellow fans can expect to see in 2019.

"The idea that me, who's been a fan for so long, who's just doing something as a hobby, has been able to then go on to work with them and participate in things that are just amazing, seems to me ridiculous because I'm just a fan, but it is astounding. It comes to their kindness and down to them as people," Nurse Normal explained.

That accessibility might be part of the draw for passionate fans of such shows. To Nurse Normal, it begins with the people on screen and the stories. Whether it's weekly or live only a few times a year like Acquisitions Incorporated, she sees something very relatable about these shows.

"I don't know if it's just because it's such a tight-knit community, but they feel closer to us, as opposed to an Avengers big blockbuster Hollywood type movie where we feel far away from them," she said. "Because D&D is something that so many people themselves participate in, I think that there's a closeness they feel, and I think that might be the basis for why these people compel us to create things."

For Crosswait it's this as well as the unpredictability of the dice rolls in the game that make these shows such as draw. Blackburn thinks the time spent watching has an impact as well, since you spend more time watching these streams that can run from two to four hours than a TV show.

"You get a better sense of them, and you get to see them not be always in character. You get to see them joke around, so they kind of feel like a part of your life more than a TV show would," she said.

Walnut Acquisitions Incorporated C Team cosplay by Annalise Fredericks

Walnut cosplay (The "C" Team) by Annalise Fredericks. Photo credit: Steamkittens

For Fredericks, there's also the pull of feeling like you're watching it then and there play out, since it's not prewritten like other media. The Dungeon Master may have an idea of where it goes, but you don't know that plan, and neither do the characters. Fans watching are having that shared experience with the players, and that can be to Fredericks a very human experience.

"D&D is one of the most, I found, therapeutic things. You can talk with other characters and sort through things that you might not be able to sort through in real life. It gives you the opportunity to maybe deal with grief or deal with 'How would I react?' or 'How would my character react in this situation?'" she said. "It's definitely a good way for dealing with, even if it's an abstract concept, certain situations or emotions, and that can just be very healthy for some people, and even just watching other people go through that can be an experience that really brings the community together as a whole and feels like you're really quite close with even the cast members, because it's such an intimate viewing experience."

It's that intimacy that has led to an overall positive experience in the fandoms for these fans. Sometimes there are those who are not as welcoming, as Nurse Normal has seen some say you need to have played D&D before to be a part of the community. She doesn't think that's the case, though. Her only experience with playing D&D was at this year's PAX West, thanks to an impromptu game with Penny Arcade's Mike Fehlauer.

"Even though there is toxicity in most fandoms, there's something very pure about the Dungeons & Dragons fandom, only because I've met so many people who've been so kind. It almost seems too perfect!" Nurse Normal said.

As these fans prove, these shows have grown almost beyond the game. You don't need to have played or play to become passionate fans and inspired to create because of them. These growing forms of entertainment with compelling stories and characters of their own have fans who participate in fandoms that encourage the usual forms of fan work as well as encourage looking at things from an innovative perspective as they follow the players and random rolls of the dice through these ongoing streaming adventures.