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The D&D and Critical Role Strategy: Get People to Play

Wizards of the Coast stirred up a little bit of controversy 3 weeks ago when it was announced that the latest book for the fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons (D&D 5e) would be a setting book penned largely by Matthew Mercer, the DM for the hit Twitch show Critical Role. The book will expound about the world of his second Critical Role campaign.

Why is/was it controversial? Well, it dealt with Critical Role for one.

This would be a hard stat to really run down but I can tell you anecdotally that when I meet people that are new to playing Dungeons and Dragons, they have often started because of Critical Role or something like it.

The old guard of DnD isn’t too sure what to do with this modern phenomenon where the game is streamed like a television show, has a cast of quality players with an excellent DM. And I am not sure which of the above things gets the players the most frustrated. And which of those things should receive our focus?

The vast majority of social media seems to suggest we should start by setting a high bar of excellence for Dungeon Masters (DMs) because based on stories reported in those groups, there are some DMs with major issues across a lot of games. A flood of “Tips for DMs” content seems to support this.

As a #Critter who really loves Critical Role and supports them in lots of ways, it doesn’t bother me when people complain, gripe, or run them down. Largely because I think and know that they are going to reach a whole different group of people than the old guard ever would or could. But I will say that it raise my ire just a little bit when I heard that by doing this Wizards of the Coast Critical Role book, it was distracting the key leadership of WotC from “growing the game.”

Because you can pretty clearly look at the last two years of Wizards of the Coast’s work and see that is what they are working on the most: Converting people into players.

Over the last few years, we have seen Wizards of the Coast take this approach: If someone has an audience of potential players, we should partner with them to convert those folks to becoming actual tabletop roleplaying game players.

Don’t believe me? Look at the track record.

The largest place that one could see Dungeons and Dragons without actually playing D&D? Look no further than the Netflix series Stranger Things. A bunch of stereotypically nerds dudes hanging in the basement casting fireball at the Demogorgon. (MORE: D&D and the Upside Down)

For some older folks, that unlocked nostalgia that maybe created curiosity about the modern world of D&D 5e. But others needed a push: So, WotC and the Stranger Things folks collaborated and put together a fairly inexpensive module that you could pick up and run for your friends. Is it the best version of the game out there for newbies? No. But could it potentially be the converting tool? Yes.

Similarly, they put together the Acquisitions Inc guidebook. Now, this one didn’t draw as much ire from the old guard group because you could argue that WotC and Acq. Inc are pretty tied together. The long running DM for the game, which previously only happened at Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) events, was Chris Perkins, who then handed the reigns to his WotC colleague Jeremy Crawford.

When the player/turned DM Jerry started a streaming game, even it eventually had major WotC ties when one of the players, Kate, went on WotC’s staff. So, there wasn’t quite the outrage.

But the same argument could have been made: They are distracted from growing the world of the “real” game by doing this sideline stuff. Again though this seems like a smart calculated move to me: Acq. Inc built an audience and why not provide a tool so that some of those folks go from passive audience to active players.

And similarly, they have done it with the Magic: The Gathering setting book and, most recently, the Rick and Morty cartoon/comic with an adapted version for their audience.

All the while, WotC has continued to press forward with its own books. I play in a weekly game that last 3 hour sessions and even at that pace, there is no way we could possibly keep up even if all we did was play the new adventures. As much as I’d love to be a part of an Eberron campaign, my crew is deep in the Saltmarsh and not likely to exit anytime soon. Do I understand people’s cries for not yet having their favorite setting in 5e yet? Sure.

But it seems to me that the WotC goal should be this: Let’s convert people to players.

And if that is the case, you’d be foolish not to look at someone like Matt Mercer and partner with him. Because it isn’t just that Critical Role is popular; its audience is dedicated. Five years ago when they started streaming their existing D&D game, they had no idea that they would eventually run their own media conglomerate, with at least some of them mainly doing the show and show adjacent things as their living.

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