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‘Actual play’ RPG experiences like Critical Role, Adventure Zone are having a moment

$1M Kickstarter and a nomination for a major industry award are pushing podcasters and streamers to the fore

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A Steamforged-created miniature of Fjord, a half-orc warlock performed by actor Travis Willingham.
Steamforged Games and Geek and Sundry
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

So-called “actual play” role-playing experiences are having a moment. Not only are these performative tabletop RPGs helping to drive interest in games like Dungeons & Dragons, now they’re actually beginning to turn a profit.

One notable example happened just last week when tabletop developer and publisher Steamforged Games completed its fourth successful Kickstarter campaign. If that name rings a bell it’s because Steamforged is the same company behind Dark Souls: The Board Game and the upcoming tabletop adaptation of Resident Evil 2.

This time around, however, Steamforged’s crowdfunding campaign wasn’t actually for a game. It was for a set of miniatures based on the characters from Critical Role, a Geek and Sundry-produced video series featuring a troop of voice actors led by Matthew Mercer.

The campaign became successful in the first 24 hours, and ended up with over $1.2 million raised on an initial ask of roughly $26,000. That makes it one of the most successful tabletop Kickstarter campaigns of the year.

critical role mercer
Matthew Mercer
Pamela Joy Photos

Meanwhile, the team behind The Adventure Zone (which includes Justin and Griffin McElroy, formerly of Polygon) is nearing the release of its first book. Titled The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins, the graphic novel is due out on July 17. Currently it’s listed as the number one best-seller in Amazon’s literary graphic novel category.

With all the attention that actual play experiences have been getting from fans over the last few years, the wider tabletop industry is starting to take notice. The Diana Jones Award Committee, which hands out one of of the most sought-after trophies in the tabletop games industry, has named the “actual play” phenomenon itself among this year’s nominees.

From the official website:

[Actual play] shows have done more to popularize roleplaying games than anything since the Satanic Panic of the 1980s — and in a far more positive way. They take RPGs out of the basement and put them on the world stage, showing a global audience exactly how much fun roleplaying games can be when played by talented people who are fully invested in their shared stories.

To put that into perspective, the Diana Jones Award has only ever been given to a game product, an organization or an individual. If the concept of actual play experiences wins it will be the first time a concept has ever done so. The only question, I guess, is: Who gets to hold the trophy for the next year if actual play actually wins?

More and more actual play experiences are cropping up every day. One that I’ve recently fallen for is the GWJ RPG. Performed by members of the Gamers With Jobs community, I’m particularly smitten with the Orbital Decay campaign. It’s using an obscure game system called Powered By The Apocalypse, which gives players and game master alike equal say in how the fictional worlds get created. Best of all, it’s being run by game writer Michael Zenke, who was previously narrative lead on Destiny 2. The series so far reminds me a bit of what would have happened if the SyFy channel’s Dark Matter hadn’t gone completely off the rails.

Big companies are also making investments in the space. Wizards of the Coast’s D&D franchise has had a limited presence at Gen Con since 2015, but they’re pouring money into events like The Stream of Many Eyes, a multi-day mini-convention and livestream broadcast on Twitch.

Wizard’s event served as the launchpad for a brand-new actual play series called Rivals of Waterdeep. The cast includes both new and experienced D&D players, but what’s notable about it is that it’s not just a bunch of white dudes sitting around a table rolling dice. The adventuring party is made up predominantly of women and people of color.

In the end, actual play is doing more than just bringing tabletop RPGs “out of the basement.” It’s giving them a voice and a face, and showing that games like D&D, Pathfinder and other systems are here for everyone to enjoy.