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What’s Behind the Incredible Popularity of Watching Others Play D&D?

When I was a kid I used to love making D&D characters. It was long before digital character sheets like Hero Lab, so I’d stat them up on sheet of notebook paper with a #2 pencil, then thumb through the Player’s Handbook, filling their backpack with all sorts of great gear for adventuring.

Although I had some great roleplaying sessions when I was a kid, I never really had a consistent group to play with, which goes to show you that finding a good gaming group has been the struggle of nerds for decades. But I LOVED Dungeons and Dragons, so rolling up characters was sort of my “lonely fun”, a way to have a little D&D in my life, albeit without the, uh, actual D&D.

Acquisitions Incorporated
Chris Perkins leads the Acquisitions Incorporated crew through an adventure as the world watches.

Fast forward three decades and I still participate in some lonely fun when it comes to D&D, but today’s digital world makes it d20 crit more entertaining. And in an ironic twist that we’ll discuss in more detail later, I’m not alone in my lonely fun. D&D fans from all over are using the time in between actually playing D&D to have a little lonely fun through watching others play D&D.

Watching others play D&D (or listening to others play, as is the case with the excellent Glass Cannon Podcast) doesn’t seem like the most entertaining way to spend down time, but viewing numbers are shooting through the roof.

The shining star example of this was the recent Acquisitions Incorporated event that was telecast live via Fathom Events. For those of you who didn’t connect the dots on what that means, here it is: A collection a people sitting around a table rolling dice was broadcast live into hundreds of movie theaters around the country, with others buying movie tickets to watch it. Unreal.

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Matt Mercer is the DM, while Chris Hardwick is a player in Force Grey.

We’ve covered Acquisitions Incorporated before, so read this if you want a deeper dive, but the Cliff Notes version is that the artists from Penny Arcade and PVP began to play Dungeons and Dragons together. Beginning years ago as a podcast, its popularity grew to the point that they began to invite fans to watch them play live sessions at their PAX conventions.

The next thing you know it is being shown live in movie theaters around the country. Little 11-year-old me never saw that coming when I was creating characters alone in my room.

So let’s spare a few thoughts for this wild world we live in where people watch other people play D&D:

  1. I didn’t come up with the term lonely fun. I heard it from someone else, who undoubtedly heard it from someone else. But there is a certain kinship in that, as it shows that there are nerds all over who have enjoyed D&D solo, despite not being able to consistently join a group.
  2. Lonely fun is more funner than ever. Us nerds have always wanted some way to engage in D&D between sessions. Critical Role, The Glass Cannon Podcast, Acquisitions Incorporated, and others are providing great entertainment that scratches that itch. I stand by the fact that this episode of Acquisitions Incorporated is just as entertaining and enjoyable as most 100 million dollar summer blockbusters.
  3. It’s not entirely without it’s concerns. I do worry that a slickly produced series like Force Grey might create unrealistic expectations for the casual fans who are sitting around the dining room table. After all, most dungeon masters aren’t professional voice actors like Matt Mercer, who DMs Force Grey, and most players aren’t professional comedians like Chris Hardwick, who is a player in the game. But despite the Hollywood slickness, it is undoubtedly a net positive, even if we all need to keep in mind that our home games shouldn’t be viewed through the lens of filmed entertainment.
  4. That said, live D&D is a great teaching tool. I’ve heard from tons of other nerds that watching the way Chris Perkins DMs Acquisition Incorporated has both given them ideas and confidence as a dungeon master in their home games. If you want to improve, watch and learn from the masters, in other words. Plus, live play podcasts like the Glass Cannon have spin off episodes that are devoted to giving tips and behind the scenes information for DMs and players alike. This is good for the industry as a whole.
  5. Finally, live play is reaching further than ever. I don’t think many fans could have predicted that watching D&D would rise to the level of showings in movie theaters, but this latest event was quite the good time. And it is drawing in new fans, evidenced by the fact that I was accompanied by a couple of newbs who were brand new to Acquisitions Incorporated.

Watching others play D&D has never been more popular and the quality of the live play has never been better. The recent Acquisitions incorporated event proved that without a doubt. Sure, it might seem lonely to watch YouTube when you’d rather be hosting a game around your kitchen table, but keep in mind that there are giant hordes of other fans who are enjoying that same lonely play you are. And that makes it seem not quite as lonely.

So enjoy the show.

[Disclosure: Fathom Events and WotC provided Nerds on Earth with complementary passes for the Acquisitions Incorporated showing.]