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The Critical Role cast tries to fill a doorway, and doesn’t quite fit
Critical Role
Photo: Robyn Von Swank for Critical Role

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How the first decade of actual play has defined the template

We trace the format’s history to figure out why it looks the way it does

Actual play is growing up. Or, as actress and producer Jennifer Kretchmer puts it, “Actual play is going through puberty, and we’re having to figure out how to adult.”

The first recognizable forms of streamed actual play date to the early 2010s, fueled by the rising popularity of Twitch and YouTube. Search either platform for actual play tabletop shows these days, and you’ll quickly notice two things. One, there are a lot of shows to choose from — on one ordinary weekday afternoon, nearly 70 tabletop role-playing game sessions were streaming on Twitch, in a half-dozen languages and even more countries. And while the language, the system, and the stories may vary widely, the looks of these streams often share a common vocabulary.

For the vast majority of these shows, you’ll see a lot of boxes arranged on screen: one for the Storyteller or Dungeon Master, two or more for the players, either separately (in remote shows) or in groups (in studio). Another box may display character art, battle maps, sponsors, or other information. As producer DC Lasair says, “Faces are interesting to look at, so I want my overlays to show off as much of the talent as possible.” Grid-like overlays also allow space for interactive elements, sponsors, and branding. Josh Simons, community and content manager at tabletop service company Demiplane, says that such overlays are one of the first ways he can tell whether professional designers have been involved in a show’s design, though even shows with very small budgets often invest in them.

This signature look was born from a combination of inspiration from other shows and practical necessity. Actual play researcher Alex I. Chalk points to J.P. “itmeJP” McDaniel’s RollPlay, which followed common esports visual design of players in boxes floating over a virtual tabletop, with cuts to character stats. When Geek & Sundry prepared to launch a new in-studio experiment called Critical Role, the layout eliminated the awkward elements of the wide-angle lenses and multipurpose tables, cables, and other clutter. By cropping and arranging, it showed all angles of a table, simultaneously, live. Player reactions became a significant part of the audience experience, leading to some of the most memorable moments in the show.

But while Critical Role — and its visual layout — came to dominate actual play, the look wasn’t a foregone conclusion. There was no standard look early on. Even in 2015, as Critical Role began to stream, Geek & Sundry was producing fullscreen, edited multi-camera shows like Wil Wheaton’s Titansgrave. The channel continued to refine both styles, producing fullscreen shows like Sagas of Sundry and We’re Alive: Frontier alongside simultaneous-display shows like Shield of Tomorrow, ForeverVerse, Callisto 6, and LA by Night. The look of simultaneous displays lent itself well to shows run remotely, which contributed to its widespread adoption as the number of streamed actual plays boomed after the move to COVID-19 pandemic protocols in 2020.

You can see these changes in the many forms of Acquisitions Incorporated, Penny Arcade’s collaboration with Wizards of the Coast. After several years as an actual play podcast, AcqInc began recording its live shows at PAX starting in 2010. These shows became more elaborate over time, moving from two cameras in a hotel ballroom to a livestreamed multi-camera setup with costumed players at PAX Prime in 2012, including an animated recap by Kris Straub. An experiment in prerecorded, edited actual play followed: AI: The Series (2016-17). Like Titansgrave, which sat its cast around a coffee table, AI was filmed around a single table and edited down to run times of 30-45 minutes, with minimal visual clutter. But Penny Arcade had its longest-running success with The “C” Team (2017-21), which like Critical Role was shot live in-studio for most of its run, with a layout that showed the entire cast. A very similar arrangement was used during pandemic remote play.

While Critical Role has long since gone independent, improved and streamlined its overlay, built a dedicated set, and upgraded it with lighting cues that can be triggered by DM Matt Mercer, what viewers see on screen is still essentially the same base layout it has always had. This ability to watch not only player characters but people at the table is one of the appeals of actual play. Jason Carl (LA by Night, New York by Night) notes livestreamed or unedited live-to-tape “draws on the improvisational skills and the role-playing skills of the players and makes it all real and immediate and genuine.” Unlike other cinematic or televisual forms, this kind of visual layout doesn’t direct the viewer’s eye, and different audience members may pay attention to different parts of the screen. Having so many faces reacting encourages fans to clip moments, create supercuts, and share these moments on social media. Some shows have even gotten into the clipping game themselves.

For performers, however, the format can be exhausting, as Kretchmer says: “It’s like being on stage the entire time. You never get a break.” Zac Lim Eubank (Hyper RPG) agrees: “We had to do some training with the actors: no looking at your phone, always look up, be engaged. If you’re doodling, you’re disengaging.” Being live, like theatre, but recorded — so your performance can be seen, remixed, recirculated, for weeks or months or even years after — is a risk that not all actors, especially ones coming to actual play from film and television, are willing to take. Most shows with mainstream celebrities, like D&Diesel, CelebriD&D, and Critical Role’s Red Nose Day specials with Stephen Colbert, are pretaped and edited.

Many shows with the budget and ambition are moving to prerecorded and edited shows to enable them to be more accessible and experiment with new visual styles. Some point to HarmonQuest (2016-19) as inspiration, a show which recorded hourlong sessions in front of a live studio audience, then edited them into 20-minute, largely animated episodes. G4’s Dungeons & Dragons Presents: Invitation to Party hosted by B. Dave Walters is a spiritual successor to HarmonQuest, substituting animation for an open circle where players move to more actively role-play.

Others point to the ongoing Dimension 20 (2018), which set itself apart with a color-shifting geodesic dome whose panels separate to allow cameras at multiple angles, and its elaborate custom physical miniatures built by Rick Perry — an element so beloved that the minis were sold at auction for hundreds or thousands of dollars each to cover future production costs. Editing not only cuts out pauses and awkward moments; it allows for a fullscreen view of the most interesting camera angle at any given moment. Postproduction additions incorporate character art, scene illustrations, and shots of the terrain that allow the viewer to see from the perspective of the miniatures.

Many of these elements add considerable cost, but Carlos Luna, content producer for Roll20, says editing is a fundamental visual technique that actual plays of any size or budget can do. But, he notes, it does take time: “People are cool with doing three hours a day of actual plays, but not doing one day of actual play and then four days of editing.” Kretchmer points to the “seamless” editing of podcast The Adventure Zone as both proof that good editing works, but also can become invisible: “I think a lot of people missed that it was by design, thinking that this is what it’s like when people play live at a table.”

Not all creators are willing to give up the power of live performance, though. Zac and Malika Lim Eubank produce live content on their own channel and for other companies. Their flagship actual play, KOllOK, is the show you’ll hear referenced most often by other creators if you ask about inspirational innovation. As Malika puts it, “Hyper is what happens when you have a filmmaker and a game designer come together, and KOllOK is when filmmakers get around a table to play and film it for you.” That means experimenting with a palette of custom sound and lighting in front of dynamic projections and virtual spaces. The recent season even used aspect ratio as part of the storytelling, enclosing the Legacy cast in tight 4:3 boxes with extreme close-ups that rarely had the cast interactions visible, while the adventuring young Ascended cast were in the “sprawling epic” of widescreen. As Malika says, it’s “all about creating a new visual language.”

The Dungeon Run attempts to split the difference between the pleasures of live performance and the appeal of tight editing, with a livestreamed studio show and 15-minute “Dungeon Rush!” recaps. The live show moves between five camera angles, with no overlays. Morgan Peter Brown says the edited version of the show is all the more important precisely because of the commitment to livestreaming: “When live is such an important part of the show, it becomes even more of a priority to help people catch up faster.”

Seven cast members sit around a table, all reacting to the tabletop game taking place
The Dungeon Run is a family-friendly D&D actual play filmed and aired live
Image: The Dungeon Run

The Dungeon Rush offers a more elaborate version of the clips increasingly used by actual plays to draw in new viewers not already watching actual plays. “Awareness is the number one thing” where many shows are missing the mark, says Luna. He points to TikTok as a platform only just starting to see actual play content. He’s edited two D&D specials for the platform’s vertical aspect ratio, which drew in tens of thousands of live viewers and hundreds of thousands of views since. He says that short clips have done even better. Jason Carl and Martyna “Outstar” Zych agree that short gameplay clips on TikTok can bring new curious viewers, and point to the ways in which other Vampire actual players have put entire campaigns on TikTok.

While Zych’s upcoming Hunter’s Garage for World of Darkness will air on Twitch and YouTube, she will incorporate behind-the-scenes how-to content on TikTok. Hunter’s Garage, unlike its Vampire sibling, will be prerecorded remotely, with the feel of a “community show.” Some community-run shows have also moved to prerecording. Ellie Collins of Atlanta by Night records in the show’s home studio, but still finds prerecording necessary now that the team’s main jobs in film, television, and theatre are back up and booking. For Zych and her international cast, prerecording avoids the dangers of dropped calls and connectivity issues that come with livestreaming, while allowing her time to add effects in postproduction. This will include displaying the players only as animated avatars, inspired by VTubers, and other virtual tabletop elements.

Hunter’s Garage is just one sign that experimentation isn’t just happening in studio shows. Several producers point to Mikaela Sims’ Mage campaign As Above So Below as a remote liveplay that incorporated visual spell effects, virtual sets, cuts to Google Earth, interactive QR-coded Easter eggs, and more. As Lasair puts it, while bigger-budget shows have the ability to get closer to traditional models that major sponsors are familiar with, “I believe we have something unique […] with a live audience that we can tap into, but as a comparatively new-ish medium, we’re still finding what really works.”

Many interviewed for this piece are quick to say that we are at a tipping point for actual play: a combination of intense competition, tight budgets, and many creative possibilities. It’s unclear what will happen. Will the audience expand? Will the ever-rising number of new streams and shows slow? Will unions get involved? Actual plays are just one gig among many for creative professionals — and one protected by no union nor any agreed-upon best practices. “We’re in a bubble,” says Collins.

It’s a challenging but exciting time, Zac Lim Eubanks says. “Make it [a] worthwhile experiment. Try stuff, ask these hard questions, and then expect you may not get an answer until five or six years later. It’s not supposed to be easy... It’s a terrifying thing to be doing.”