Cult of the Video GM 

With Perkins and Mercer as the best-known representatives, gaming as spectator sport is rapidly spreading, especially among newcomers and those who seek to return to the hobby, but do not know how. With Perkin’s ‘Acquisitions Inc show for Pax being far toward one end of this representation and Mercer’s Critical Role heading more toward the other, the impact of these properties has been broad. Thought of generally as Actual Play videos, they occupy something similar but not quite what an AP video is. Actual play videos, for sharing, for instruction, or for both have been offered by roleplaying gamers on YouTube for ages, but the draw is considerably less than for showy properties like the Acquisitions Inc. games or those pushed by Geek and Sundry.

With comments sections full of ringing endorsements about well-known “paid-to-play” role-models being great examples to follow and aspire to, and industry professionals in support of anything which draws attention to the hobby, the general consensus is that we are supposed to be very happy to see these games out there getting millions of views and being used as examples of how to play the game.

Gamers being gamers I am noticing that there are those who cite these games as signs of the end times standing side by side with those who wouldn’t know the end times if the words ‘These are the End Times‘ were writ large in the sky with letters of flame. Me being me, it’s time to use the word spectrum again, I suppose, but instead I think I will sidestep to the word spectacle. The spectrum is obvious, I think.

These shows are not Actual Play videos. They may get called that, but that is wishful and somewhat troublesome thinking. I am not a fan of Actual Play videos. Even my own. For many reasons, partly to do with the challenges of recording groups and partly to do with the group getting the time to gel with the game and each other, AP videos can often be a slog or like being trapped in your car watching a wreck take place in front of you in slow motion. On top of all the other things a GM has to juggle to run a game with unfamiliar players, the presence of cameras can really change how people behave. Add in the notion many have that RPGs are participatory not spectator events, and AP videos have a hard row to hoe. I do like AP videos which focus on breaking down what is going on with the game, and how the GM is running it, but turning an AP video into a show – no matter how good that show might be – has an effect, and it is one that gets missed, forgotten, or bellowed in rage so loudly that no one wants to listen, even when sympathetic.

The effect is this: Instead of highlighting the hobby, the spectacle of a show hides it. This hobby has grown from one game to thousands upon thousands of games. The promotional spectacle of celebrity players with their licensed characters and their celebrity GM in a sponsored game hides what we play and it hides how we play. The hosts may have it in their hearts to promote gaming, but the sponsors have it in mind to sponsor their game. A small wrinkle in that, but perhaps too small to matter at this point, is that we do not tune in to see the game being played, we tune in to be entertained by the performance and the ongoing story. There is nothing else present in a spectacle for us to see. Events like Acquisitions Inc are just that – events. They are audience participation in the vein of going to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show, but they are not a representation of actual play of actual games. They just pretend to be.

On the positive side, these events make gaming look cool and better, make it seem accessible. Naysayers will tout that newcomers will give up because they cannot run games like the ‘pros’ do, but I do not find that argument holds much water. It’s not the expectation of being an instant expert that will dissuade newcomers from gaming enough to get good at it, it’s the sudden discovery of how different the games are from what they were shown on TV. Much like the cool action toys in the commercials of our youth, things just are not as depicted. It is more complicated than it looks, and for many, complicated is a weight too heavy to bear unassisted.

It is in assistance where Mercer shines a little brighter from my perspective in that we see many of the mechanics in play, and he offers GM tutorials in the same format and via the same outlet as his show. In a sense, he is offering a helping hand to carry the weight of getting into a game. It must be remembered, though, that this is a sponsored game, and it comes with a particular perspective – without any other points of view on offer. Given how diverse the hobby really is, and how little of it looks and works like what appears to be the industry heavy weight, this is not a disservice to the sponsor, but it is to the many customers who might not realize that their dislike of that one game does not equate to a dislike of all of them. Not everyone is so lucky as to be able to transition from one game to another or even know that there are other games out there to try. It’s hard to imagine, but a quick pass through gaming forums will demonstrate how pervasive that view can be.

What then can be done? Those who do not know there is something else to learn might not be reached regardless of what we do, and those who do know but do not care will not be moved. Talking heads trying to share their experience via video can ramble on too long and bloggers can tunnel too quickly into an echo-chamber of their own devising. Low-quality webcam captures of hangouts play can seem unlikely to sway anyone to try a fringe game no one has heard of, and a sniggering boys’ club of players might do more to dissuade than persuade… right? What then can be done?

The first thing we can do is remember.

I think one thing we older gamers forget is the fire our first good game lit in us, and how small obstacles seemed when we were young. Granted, it might be too late for a generation of gamers to get into the hobby the way we did. We might have failed them by not sharing our love of the game, and acquiescing too easily to the blinking lights of that false god, computer roleplaying games. We do not have to wallow in failure. We can rise up, and try again. The current tide is rising, it is rising in our direction, and it can – if we keep our ships in order, raise more than just the self-proclaimed flagship of the hobby. It can raise the gamer, too. It’s not our job to promote specific games. It is not our calling to make sure that 10-year old Jenny learns to love our favorite game from the 80s. It might feel like it, but that is vanity and short-sightedness speaking. Don’t listen.

The second thing we can do is share. The paid voices are not working for us. We have to do that, but we have to know how. Sharing is that way.

Our calling is to invite new players to many different games and to make them all fun. Our calling is to be available to teach the newcomers how to play, how to learn to play, how to discern what they enjoy playing, and encourage them to invite others to their own tables despite how shy or lacking in confidence they might feel. Help them help themselves to the same lifetime of awesome gaming we have been blessed by. That might mean starting out by slipping a few alms into the tills of the GM Cults out there by giving their spectacles some views to provide context to what greater wonders you intend to unleash in your charges. That might mean doing more than sticking a starter set in gift-wrapping and hoping the recipient likes what they get. That might mean being someone to confer with and confide in about games, gaming, and our fellow gamers. It might mean being an active proponent of gaming itself, whether in person or on a blog or vlog or forum. In the online world there is power in having many voices and varied opinions. Online is an eternal land of discovery waiting to be found and found again, that shows the many paths which can be followed. Forget editions, forget systems, forget old allegiances. All of that is preference. All of that is personal. The new people you recruit have the right to develop their own preferences. If you are lucky, theirs will include yours, but even if they don’t it won’t matter. They will be gamers like you, and they will never, ever forget the gift you gave them and how you empowered them to share it with people who will be their friends for real and in collective imaginings for the rest of their lives.

None of us will be video gods with a devoted following of cultists.

If we do our part to spread the love of gaming, none of us will need to~

10 Responses to “Cult of the Video GM ”
  1. Counter-argument

    First, the people at Critical Role only accepted to broadcast their game at the condition that they would control the content and not change their approach to gaming. It is very much their game, their personalities we see on screen, vulgarities included. Even if the contrary was true, there is only so much time an actor can keep it on script or in-character, a thing not possible with performances avering the four hour mark. Sure it became a brand and the actors receive a small compensation, but it is nothing glorious and worth building a career of such as the cast regular jobs in the voice over business. The fraction of pay being relatively low I would not call it pay-to-play but more actual play than the casual observer might note.

    Second, if you record a session and call it actual play, that is still as objective and unfiltered as it can gets, objective representation speaking, even more so since there often no cut, no editing, no montage, or editorial choices. Just a live feed from start to finish. Granted, I do prefer the term “live play” and understand the minor gripes we can have with such a term.

    Thirdly, thanks to these live play and their format, roleplaying games are shown in a extremely positive light and many games are now being played because of it. Seeing people having fun, even if it is not participatory just right now, it induces the idea of what a roleplaying game can be, how much fun it can be. I’ve spend some time reading the chat section of these show and the number of new game masters is certainly at an all-time high.

    I don’t think they hid the hobby as much as you claim. Some show like Titansgrave are more like traditional shows, with editing, graphics, montage, cuts, music selection. Show like Hyper RPG or the Happy Jacks, for examples, are actual play but no efforts is made for the spectator in any ways. Critical Role have the fortune of having a cast of actors, capable of projecting more than your casual person, allowing the viewer and easing them more effectively. If I compared to my first D&D experience, I would say that the hobby was hidden even if it was right in front of me. That I would call: not understanding the premise and basic rules. That goes as well for actual play. Having done live play as well, I will submit that if a slight effort is made in the crucial first minutes of any live play, an audience can be ease in better, and that small effort won’t fundamentally change the game or the way it is played, once the cameras are forgotten.

    • Runeslinger says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I hope that the point of the post did not get lost in the reaction it caused in regard to Mercer’s episodes as an example. I certainly do not lump Mercer’s games in with the Pax shows, they are points along the spectrum. I can make that more explicit in an edit.

      Where the two join is in sponsored promotion of a particular game with a huge reach.

      If we do not want that to be all that gaming is, we need to step up. Some of us in that we, such as you, Sebastien have already stepped up, and I hope you keep at it. All the games that you play benefit from what you share about them, so the hobby does as well. In the long run, I think it is effort at our level that will be more important than these big sponsored things.

      • I knew you were talking from a larger perspective and I approached it as such, also mentioning the same shows for reference.

        There’s something to be said about “the hobby” being really a tangible thing and wanting more from it, more from what is essentially very, very simple. For a majority of people, it’s just a fun venue for entertainment and nothing more, and not the complex subject of a thousand studies, from game theory to socio-politics of sub-cultures.

        Maybe one can dive in too deep to appreciate the simplest things. There’s also something to be said about always trying to evolve and get more and more from this activity, versus just enjoying the ride and experience things not a progressive manner.

        I will only be in personnally for only as long as it is fun, and I don’t feel that pressure to “step up”. My introverted self is already in equilibrium with my current level of exposition on YouTube and the social medias. Stepping up for me would likely open the door for hatred for the hobby, leading to a complete shut down. It has to be about sharing, teaching when people ask, and enjoying the things for what they are, occassionally uncovering a new thing.

        I did found my own limits, I think, over time, where theory cease to become pratical, where trying to help others means nothing until they will it, where discoveries is only enriching my life, where the things I discover are only meaningful to me, my entourage decades behind in terms of comprehension and appreciation.

        The power of Actual Plays/Live Plays, are really memes crawling in, making people want to play those fun games. When true passion will blossom, D&D can be, as it always been, the gate for other games. I think painting them in a negative light is opposite to what we are trying to do. I feel there’s no agenda of recruiting, and training new recruits. That all feel a little too martial, militaristic. I’d rather be the gentle garderner, doing his things, occasionally showing the garden to stranger, and teach to the ones coming to the garden with a willingness to learn.

        • Runeslinger says:

          Now we are on the same page again.

          I agree this post is strongly worded in parts, but it is speaking to the people who could share and do not – whatever the context.

          I am not trying to paint Perkins or Mercer in a negative light, nor do I wish to portray D&D as a problem.

          What I am saying is that people can be confused about what place shows like Acquisitions Inc and Critical Role have in the hobby as a whole. In that confusion they can easily miss the thousands of other games that are out there, many of which they might enjoy as much or much more than they might enjoy D&D. Game stores are fading away, RPG sections for print are shrinking. Accidentally coming across a cool game is getting harder as a newcomer… unless the people who already play more than one or two games are willing to share what they know in ways that are more readily discovered than a PDF on DriveThru, Warehouse23, or the UnStore.

          You are already sharing. I am already sharing. Many in the Brigade are as well. Many are not. Opportunities to share are being missed. Those opportunities, either actively like volunteering at a library or in an after-school program, or passively like putting up an informative video to help someone later are important in my opinion.

          None of this is about theory or pushing ourselves to be better players. This is about opening spots at our tables to people who want to play but don’t know where to start, or about starting new groups, or about starting a blog or vlog, or about hanging out at a game store and talking to people about their questions when the staff has no idea, and so on.

          It’s about joining with the excitement that Perkins and Mercer and others like them bring and making sure that a chorus of voices is speaking, about a whole symphony of games.

  2. Calthaer says:

    I am a 5th edition player who is playing D&D primarily because of Acquisitions, Inc. My wife and I began watching the series back in 2012 once it first came on YouTube and enjoyed it a lot – so much so that we recently paid the full price of a movie ticket to see them play live this past Labor Day (first time we’d been in a theater in at least one year, maybe more). I now play in a campaign with some folks from work. I had never played any edition of D&D before and had not played any P&P RPG since some Rolemaster / SpaceMaster games in high school, although I did play the Black Isle games and Neverwinter Nights in the late ’90s / early aughts.

    It’s hard to argue against the idea that role-playing, and D&D in particular, has a stigma associated with it. Friendly Local Game Stores are welcoming to some interest groups but not to all. It’s hard to imagine a high school cheerleader, for example, ever imagining walking into such a store, let alone walking into one – the very scenario is so full of disastrous possibilities that it sounds like something written for sit-com. There is a real need to show average people that the game can be entertaining. The game also tends to seem more like a complicated simulation when you hear people discussing endless minutiae over obscure rules interactions revolving around maneuvers, bonuses, conditions, and so forth. Those mechanics are simply not that interesting to myself and to many others.

    Acquisitions, Inc. is what it is – it is entertainment, and it is advertising. It seems designed to showcase D&D in a good light – as Sebastian pointed out, it shows people having fun. It also shows fairly normal people enjoying the game – the addition of Morgan Webb is no accident. It shows that funny, intelligent people use it as a platform for cracking jokes and having a good time in a relatively short amount of time – three hours is manageable in a way that the six-hour marathon sessions of one’s high school days are not. It makes D&D accessible in a way that the back room of a FLGS or the proverbial basement never could. I am less clear on what the benefit of Mercer’s games are, but that is perhaps because I don’t find him and his crew very fun to watch. I love the fact that these games are being broadcast and think they’re doing great things for “the hobby.”

    • Runeslinger says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting, I really appreciate it.

      I whole-heartedly agree with everything you say in your comment. AI is definitely about showing D&D in a good light and does by extension show the hobby in a good light. It is great fun to watch and definitely is getting people to play D&D – or at least try it, which is awesome.

      What this post is about though, is for the rest of us to do our part if we can. AI cannot do it all for us, and neither can Critical Role. We are the ones who make an FLGS a welcoming or a weird place. We are the ones who can choose to invite coworkers to play or to keep our gaming a secret.

      That’s all. I am one who loves that there is so much more to the hobby than D&D and I hope people will be able to discover it all as easily as they can find D&D. WotC will not do that, and that is cool because that means we can do it, and that is awesome.

      Anyway, thanks again for stopping by and contributing your thoughts. I am glad to read such positivity about AI and getting back into gaming. The best parts of your comment for me was reading how you have been getting into this with your wife, and are gaming with your coworkers. At its heart, that is what this post was about~

  3. rkurbis says:

    Its cool reading about this, I’ve decided to run a time of war/total war campaign and I’m trying to gauge how to do this and get some good ideas to make a good story for my players… last time I played Battletech/mechwarrior was back in the 80’s… just had my pdf’s printed yesterday and raring to go

    • Runeslinger says:

      I am glad to hear of excitement over the BattleTech universe and A Time of War!

      We love the game and have had several good campaigns with it and Total Warfare.

      Let me know how it goes~

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