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The Nerds Are Rising

By Alison Lanier | TV | March 16, 2023 |

By Alison Lanier | TV | March 16, 2023 |


On March 9, Twitter was alight with some rare wholesome content: Critical Role, the DnD podcast-turned-sensation, was celebrating its eighth year running. In that time, it’s spawned a massive fanbase, comic books, and two seasons of an animated Amazon series, bringing the delight of niche nerddom to the masses.

I’m going to try to keep the TTRPG terminology to a minimum here, but as a courtesy heads-up: DM is Dungeon Master, the ominous title for the person who designed the story, enforces the rules, and guides the players on their adventure. DnD is Dungeons and Dragons itself, and TTRPG is tabletop roleplaying game, the analog genre of gaming to which DnD belongs.

One ingredient to Critical Role’s success has been characterized by its cast and the cast’s energy: they’re entertainers, voice actors, people who juggle each other’s momentum. I’ll admit I’m not personally a Critical Role person—because there are many, many other options in the last few years. Also because Critical Role episodes are hours and hours long and I believe in editing.

Personally, I’m more of a fan of Dropout’s (that’s the remnants of College Humor) Dimension 20, a vast array of diverse games run in different systems with a rotating cast of delightful personalities. If you need a place to start, their Fantasy High campaign is it (John Hughes meets DnD meets some of the best DMing in the business. Looking at you, Brennan Lee Mulligan.)

Of course, the TTRPG scene isn’t massive in terms of recognizable personalities—which means there’s significant crossover between networks, games, and channels in terms of players/performers. Matt Mercer, for instance, arguably the most recognizable DnD personality of the bunch and the DM behind Critical Role, appears as a player on the D20 network and will be DMing an upcoming campaign for them as well. And of course this is all without mentioning the McElroys and The Adventure Zone, a massive DnD phenomenon that helped kick off the current revival.

But I’m not here to settle which is the “best” of the TTRPG media out there. (I haven’t even touched podcasts yet.) Nor I am going to address the outcry of the various DM fandoms over, for instance, Matt Mercer heading up a game for Dropout rather than an up-and-coming DM who could really use the platforming. I want to talk about why TTRPGs are so captivating and successful as the genre makes serious inroads into TV/streaming. Co-created stories are certainly moving into television with a force. While reality TV of any ilk is, by definition, also co-created storytelling, it shouldn’t be a surprise that tabletop narratives have found success in the same environment.

But it’s perhaps ungenerous to bunch TTRPG (tabletop role-playing game) shows into the same pot with Below Decks and Survivor. TTRPGs also run on the strength of personality and collaborative worldbuilding and storytelling. It’s a game, yes, but part of the game is the collective sense of story, of character, of connection—within the narrative and among the players at the table.

Add to that equation the built-in unpredictability of TTRPG narratives. Not even the all-knowing DM knows what a player is going to roll, and that can make the story twists and turns both unintentional and thrilling. If a player rolls very well or very badly at a key moment, the in-moment narrative dexterity of the whole table comes into play. Improv with math may not sound great on paper, but I promise you, you too will scream when Ally Beardsley rolls a natural 20 at precisely the moment all seems lost.

One of my favorite DnD podcasts (and there are a LOT of DnD podcats), Join the Party, has “afterparty” episodes in which the players and DM review the last session, revealing potential narrative roads not taken, characters not met, and exponential other stories nested within the one the players chose to take.
Sure, you never know what the Kardashians are going to get up to either, but the skillful design, narration, teamwork, and pure technical narrative pivots in a complex story world have their own chaotic joy and magic. A good DM can take you into immersive settings and worlds, even when you’re not the one playing the game.

That heartfelt immersion is testified to not only in viewership numbers (members of the Dimension 20 crew recently launched a Kickstarter-backed podcast project, Worlds Beyond Number, that received a truly staggering amount of support and subsequent audience attention), but also in the interest of mega-media networks (read: Amazon). The Legend of Vox Machina is literally the characters from the first campaign of Critical Role lifted from table-top to adult animation. And though it wasn’t my favorite personally, the viewership was powerful enough to catapult us into a second season from the streaming giant.

There’s also the unique kind of cross-franchise minor celebrity that keeps fandoms feeling personal. Case in point: Ashley Johnson and Laura Bailey, who originated the roles of Ellie and Abby in The Last Of Us games and just cameoed on the HBO season finale, are both main cast Critical Role players.

That’s all to say: TTRPG as a media phenomenon breaking into streaming feels fresh and personal to me, inventive and promising. I can’t wait to see where it goes.